Beck Goes Through the Pop Prism on New Album 'Colors'
The musical chameleon opens up about how timeless songcraft, tour jams and a little Pharrell Williams happenstance influenced his 'Morning Phase' followup
Published Sep 27, 2017Beck and Pharrell Williams had never worked together until, as Beck now recalls, "four or five years ago," around the same time that he'd begun writing and recording a new record that "when you hear it, it just makes you happy."
"I went in on the first day, and Pharrell's like, 'We just finished this song, you have to hear this. Before we start anything, I just want to play you this.' And he played the song 'Happy.' I don't really know how to explain that… like, I was writing something like that!"
Both artists were trying to tap into a feeling that can be nearly impossible to express without coming across as forced, cheesy or sentimental: joy.
"It's that sort of cliché that comedy's harder than drama. For something to have buoyancy and lightness, it can't be weighed down by certain things. But at the same time, sometimes that weight is what gives something substance, so you're fighting this dynamic of trying to put something very heartfelt and true into something that needs to have a lightness to it."
With his new record, Colors, Beck strikes that fine balance. Vivid and warm, the boisterous, chart-friendly pop record is Beck's most accessible work to date, but it's imbued with the weight that only a songwriter of his talent and experience could muster.
Beck's tendency to jump from genre to genre every album — he's come across, at various points, as a bluesy slacker poet, a sample-crazed party-starter, a slinky funk maestro and a sad-sack folk balladeer — has led to a reputation as a musical chameleon, an artist that not only adopts new sounds constantly, but masters and transcends them.
But while trying on new musical guises comes easily to Beck, for the last while, he says, he's been pushing himself to dig a little deeper. The challenge on Colors was, first and foremost, to embrace a more classic, direct and connective mode of songwriting.
"Over time, you start to look at the sound and production of the music as the skin, the superficial part. You can obscure the song, and put it in all of these different sonic contexts; there's no one way to do it. I was thinking a lot, when I was making this record, about the craft and discipline behind the great music we all know and love, whether it's Pet Sounds or Off the Wall."
Underneath Colors' undeniable pop sheen are some of Beck's most straightforward, traditional songs — on a structural level, not unlike those from its Album of the Year Grammy-winning predecessor, 2014's Morning Phase. Which raises the question: Is Beck's primary talent his ability to mimic different genre tropes and production, or has that sonic shape-shifting distracted us from his true genius: an ongoing mastery of songcraft itself?
Born in Los Angeles to arranger/composer David Campbell and actress/performance artist Bibbe Hansen, the artist born Bek David Campbell grew up fascinated by the work of his paternal grandfather Al Hansen, a participant in Andy Warhol's Factory and a junk collector whose work turned old magazines, cigarette butts and discarded children's toys into collages and sculptures.
Beck's early, anti-folk meanderings were defined by a ramshackle, junkyard sound that made them feel more like sketchbooks than finished products. They were littered with random audio samples, and the sound often warbled, as though the tape itself were warped.
His grandfather, he'd tell Rolling Stone in 1997, "gave me the idea, maybe subconsciously, that there were possibilities within the limitations of everyday life, with the things that we look at that are disposable. We can appoint ourselves to be alchemists, turning shit into gold."
That found object aesthetic hit an early peak on the verbose, densely Dadaist "Loser," a song Beck released in 1993 that, once it was unexpectedly picked up by college and then mainstream radio, launched him to stardom.
"Loser" put Beck on the map — his major label debut, Mellow Gold, was released in 1994 — but it also pigeonholed him; quickly, he found himself being painted as the song's titular slacker. The passionate, workmanlike musician had gained a one-dimensional reputation that neither his rootsy, down-to-earth K Records followup, One Foot in the Grave, nor Stereopathic Soulmanure, a collection of roughly hewn recordings from 1988 to 1993, could shake.
It wasn't until 1996, when he released his groundbreaking masterpiece Odelay — a sample-heavy opus that wove hip-hop, punk and blues into a consistent, cohesive whole — that Beck's ingenuity and talent were appreciated. From there, he let his creativity run wild; 1998's Mutations embraced more traditional folk and blues, but was still imbued with animal sounds and weird sonic flourishes, while 1999's Midnite Vultures dove wholeheartedly into what many critics perceived as pure indulgence — even if, retrospectively, it's easy to hear Prince and funk as clear influences.
Beck's enigmatic, avant-garde rawness put him in the company of boundary-pushing contemporaries like Björk and Aphex Twin, but like many artists, he felt misunderstood; even then, he expressed frustration at audiences' inability to make sense of his lyrics. "They think I'm being a clown," he told Rolling Stone.
It's a feeling that still irks Beck today.
"I was talking to somebody yesterday about, 'When you came out, people thought your lyrics were just a bunch of gibberish!' And I said 'Well, let's walk through the songs. Which lyrics?' There was meaning and thought behind everything; I wanted to have ideas and thought and meaning in every place, you know? You could dig into it and be like, 'Oh, he's referencing Gary Wilson here,' and there were allusions to new wave and Blind Willie Johnson all mixed up together."
It's easy, in retrospect, to see his ensuing run of albums, starting with 2002's golden-hued, melancholy Sea Change, as the beginning of an intentional shift toward mutual understanding — even the comparatively weird Guero in 2005 featured more conventional pop songs like "Girl" and "Black Tambourine." Following a Nigel Godrich-produced funk, folk and hip-hop bouillabaisse (2006's The Information) and a psych-inflected, sample-ridden Danger Mouse production (2008's Modern Guilt), Beck took his interest in pushing the boundaries of songwriting to an unprecedented level.
In 2012, he released Song Reader, a sheet music-only album that was interpreted, song-by-song, by musicians as varied as Norah Jones, Jack White and Jarvis Cocker. These were songs whose bones were set by Beck, but whose skin and musculature others sculpted. Genre didn't matter; the songs did.
It was around Song Reader's release that Beck conceived Colors, but he was already prepping Morning Phase as well. With his focus squarely on songwriting, he was simultaneously outfitting some of his new songs in traditional folk garb, others in pop star sequins.
Beck toured relentlessly following Morning Phase's release, but rarely played more than a handful of cuts from it — he was more interested in reconfiguring a breadth of older material in order to best connect with his audience.
"I work for the audience and with them. I can never relate to this idea of getting up there, and 'Everyone's lucky to be here and maybe if you're lucky I'll play one or two songs that you wanted to hear.' Maybe it's coming from a working class family, or it's just sort of what I like about music — that it can bring all these people together, some crying, or singing or dancing."
In 2013, Beck called Greg Kurstin, the songwriting and production heavyweight behind hits by Kylie Minogue, Sia, Kelly Clarkson and Adele's Grammy Award-winning 25, to collaborate on a new LP.
"Beck wanted to make a party record," Kurstin explains by email. "He wanted to make a body of work that would translate into a fun live experience."
Kurstin, Beck knew, was not only an expert in songcraft, but was intimately familiar with Beck's process and previous catalogue; after joining Beck's Sea Change touring band in 2002, Kurstin played on both The Information and Modern Guilt. Shortly after, he embarked on a songwriting career that led to his current standing as a go-to producer and songwriter.
The sessions with Kurstin, Beck says, went just as expected. "It was great, very natural — just an extension of what we've always done. It was great for me, because I never had somebody to bounce things off of. It was my best ideas and his best ideas."
Writing the first draft of the joyous Colors was, according to Beck, the easy part. Harder was fine-tuning them, ensuring that they did exactly what he wanted without getting away from him.
"The songs were there quickly, for the most part — and a few times we got lucky, like with 'Dear Life,' which was written in a few hours — but most of the record was a long, painstaking process. You get the idea, the potential of what it could be; you have in your mind this Sgt. Pepper's ultimate version of what the song could be, fully realized, but to get it there could be arduous and heartbreaking. I can hear it, but I have to make it so that everyone else can hear the same thing."
The record's title track is upbeat, but conveys a sense of yearning via its beatless, atmospheric pre-chorus and echoed, pitch-shifted chorus. Elsewhere, the peppy "No Distraction" features Beck's most soaring moments to date, with just enough of the bombast that Kurstin lent Tegan and Sara's last two albums, while "Up All Night" is a till-dawn party jam that doubles as a love song. It all comes to a close with the early morning sweetness of the album's only ballad, "Fix Me," a perfect ending to the album's just-right 45-minute run time.
These days, and on Colors in particular, Beck seems less interested in freaking people out than in bringing them together.
"Great songs can bring people together and have an uplifting quality, you know, whether it's Prince or the Beach Boys at their best. Even punk rock has its own exuberance. There's that quality to a lot of genres."
He points to Kendrick Lamar as a modern artist who both embraces classic songcraft and says something about the moment in which they're creating.
"I saw Kendrick play last night, and he was in a giant arena, huge place. It was just him alone onstage, with his songs, and everybody was singing with their arms up the whole show. That's just one of those examples of somebody speaking how people are feeling in the moment, and everybody already understands it. They were just waiting for somebody to articulate it."
Colors doesn't have poignant messages like those at the centre of Lamar's work, but Beck is tuned into what's going on in modern music, and as such, remains a central part of the conversation. He's still listening, still growing and still searching for new ways to approach his craft. And joy, as the captivating songwriting on Colors demonstrates, suits him well.
"To me, there are great songs that are just on the verge of banality and cliché, but not quite; instead, they're on the most profound level possible," he says, invoking Pharrell's "Happy" once more. "That's something where I feel like I'm sometimes still in school — to figure out how that works."
Pre-order Colors on standard vinyl and limited edition deluxe vinyl via Umusic.