Say hello to yacht-rock Beck.
When Beck puts out a new album, the first thing that someone trying to understand it is likely to do is put it in a box. It's a temptation that Beck himself has fed into by making his albums thematically and sonically consistent statements, little snapshots in time that make sense when heard front to back. There's sad-sack Beck (Sea Change, Morning Phase), modern-rock Beck (Guero, Modern Guilt), hip-hop Beck, (Mellow Gold, Odelay), folk Beck (Mutations, One Foot in the Grave), disco-soul Beck (hello Midnite Vultures), and even weird Beck (Stereopathetic Soulmanure, Golden Feelings), who for better or worse was left behind around the time he got a studio budget. Granted, these are not hard and fast categorizations -- Mellow Gold has its share of (excellent) folk, Mutations dives briefly into bossa nova, and so on -- but for the most part, when you pick up a Beck album, you've prepared yourself to dive in to one of his many moods.
This, of course, brings us to Colors. Say hello to yacht-rock Beck. Enjoy your voyage.
Stick with me for a second: This is not a bad move for Beck. The new album is called Colors for good reason. It is bright, it is energetic, it is the diametric opposite of the sluggish, morose, Grammy bait of previous album Morning Phase.
To a point, we should have been ready for this: "Dreams" doesn't fall neatly into the motifs of late-'70s/early-'80s lite rock, but a few of the defining characteristics are there: the clean, non-distorted electric guitars, the prominent but not distracting synth lines, and plenty of thick harmonies. Of course, the goofy toss-off that is "Wow" -- Beck's most ubiquitous single in years -- was a feint in another direction, a nod to "hip-hop Beck" that pointed to a possible throwback album from the guy who made disillusioned suburban slacker hip-hop a thing.
As it turns out, "Wow" was the fakeout, and a rather unfortunate one at that. While "Wow" does serve to break up the album's syrupy-sweet melodic onslaught a bit, and while I can't argue with the inventiveness of centering your production on a slide whistle, there's a little too much of a wink in Beck's delivery here to sit right. Beck tends to tread the line between homage and irony rather skillfully when he wades into hip-hop, but the send-up feel here veers too close to the use of cultural appropriation for laughs. It works in his favor that it's catchy as hell, and it's hard to fault the guy too much for putting it out for his kids, but maybe it should have stayed in the house. Even in Beck's most bizarre moments there is typically some honest sincerity to be found, but "Wow" is a complete goof, a joke with no heart.
"Wow" does function as a palette-cleanser of sorts, a break from the lush production that Beck's once-bandmate now-superproducer Greg Kurstin has infused the majority of Colors with. Surrounding "Wow" are songs like "Seventh Heaven", "No Distraction", and "Up All Night", great lite-rock songs that Hall & Oates somehow never wrote. "No Distraction" in particular, with its repeated "Pull you to the left / Pull you to the right / Pull you in all directions" lyric, sounds like something that easily could have come from the early-'80s variety of blue-eyed soul. Later in the album, deep cut "Square One" has The Doobie Brothers written all over it, with its propulsive keyboards and smooth falsetto lines.
While those are fine, however, there are a couple songs that, like "Dreams", transcend their yacht-rock tendencies. Opener "Colors" is as effervescent and energetic as Beck has ever been, just bursting with melody and energy even as it fits the mold of the rest of the album. "I'm So Free" starts out like just another uptempo track, but then breaks into a high-speed hip-hop pre-chorus before jumping into a hilariously earnest pop-punk chorus; it's the one song that flirts with the in-song genre-hopping of Odelay, and as such would be a fine choice as a future single. Closer "Fix Me", one of only two tracks (with "Wow") not produced by Kurstin, effectively rides a simplified arrangement to something like a Morning Phase song after a couple cups of coffee. These are songs that can sit comfortably alongside anything Beck has ever released in terms of pure quality.
"Yacht rock Beck" actually makes a certain kind of sense, career-wise. Beck is getting older, he's got a family, he's mellowing out a bit. He's probably at the point where he says things like "I never realized Squeeze was so talented!" This is not a bad thing -- for one, there's nothing wrong with Squeeze, and for two, applying his own unique melodic sensibilities and knack for experimentation to the style makes for an exciting, shockingly relevant listen.
Despite the stark difference between Colors and the skewed folk ramblings of his early days, Colors feels like the type of album you make when you get to make whatever album you want, a sort of freedom he might not have had since perhaps Mellow Gold. It's an album he made with a buddy of his, over the course of a few years, between tour stops. This is an album that is more than anything about the joy of making music. It's not perfect, but it is a joyful, engaging listen, a perfect first step in the "I no longer have anything to prove" phase of Beck's illustrious career.