Fifteen years ago, Beck released his heartbroken folk opus Sea Change — and then toured with the Flaming Lips and put out 2005’s Guero, his rowdy reunion with “Where It’s At” producers the Dust Brothers. So it’s not unprecedented that he’s followed up 2014’s Grammy-winning, sepia-toned Morning Phase with the kaleidoscopic burst of his 13th LP, the perhaps-too-appropriately titled Colors. And, true to form, the chameleonic artist has handled his latest sonic shift with ease.
Give due credit to superproducer Greg Kurstin, who’s had a hand in recent pop smashes such as Adele’s “Hello” and Sia’s “Chandelier.” Beck was one of Kurstin’s earliest boosters — he brought him on tour in the early ’00s and invited him to play on subsequent records — and at times Colors suggests that working with Beck, not A-list divas, is Kurstin’s true calling. “Up All Night” seamlessly moves from herky-jerky acoustic-guitar riffs to booming, Ryan Lewis-esque pianos, yet Beck’s enthusiasm and knack for melody make the odd combination of styles work. Ditto the title track, which pairs spliced-up vocals and pan flutes with a stomping beat that dares listeners not to dance.
Beck has compared Colors to his divisive, funk-inflected 1999 gem Midnite Vultures, still home to some of his career’s strangest music. But it probably shares more DNA with 2008’s Modern Guilt, his collaboration with another producer at a creative and commercial zenith: Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, the Black Keys). Like that album, Colors finds Beck straddling the alternative and pop worlds; shortly after debuting the album’s addictive first single, “Dreams,” way back in June of 2015, he tellingly performed the track with Taylor Swift and St. Vincent in a 1989 tour cameo. But as on Guilt, the glossy production here sometimes neuters Beck’s wilder inclinations: “No Distraction” and “I’m So Free” both lean into the zeitgeist a little too hard, and they’re the only spots on Colors where 47-year-old Beck really shows his age.
Still, as his first upbeat album in nearly a decade, Colors proves that Beck is still one of rock’s most intrepid inventors. “Wow” combines quintessentially Beck lyrics — “Standing on the lawn doin’ jiujitsu/ Girl in a bikini with the Lamborghini shih tzu” — with a bizarro beat that sounds like Kygo on ‘shrooms. And he hasn’t entirely banished the introspective ennui of Change and Phase, either. “Dear Life,” with its McCartney-inspired guitars and vocal harmonies, is the album’s best and most affecting tune. “Dear life, I’m holding on,” Beck sings, “how long must I wait, before the thrill is gone?” He’s succinctly addressing the perpetual trade-offs between the comfort of the familiar and the excitement of the unknown — but if Colors is any indication, Beck can still have both.