Without belittling his formidable talent as a songwriter, over the course of his entire career Beck has been a musical assimilator of the first order, pulling influences and references from a head-spinning array of sources. Unlike many artists, he does it proudly and even flagrantly, whether with genuine samples (as he and collaborators the Dust Brothers did on 1996’s “Odelay”) or sly references for eagle-eared music dorks like him, which over the years have ranged from Wu-Tang Clan (the B-side “The Little Drum Machine Boy”) to Os Mutantes (“Tropicalia”) to Prince and David Bowie (so many times). He even created a “Record Club” where he and various friends would cover entire albums (ranging from the Velvet Underground and Leonard Cohen to INXS and Yanni) in a single day and post the results online.
Despite that, he often plays his cards close to the vest: There was absolutely no reason to expect, when he first broke through in 1993 as a bizarro hybrid of a lo-fi rapper, indie-rocker and anti-folk loser, that three years later he’d be a suited showman, leading a whipcrack band through synchronized moves that culminated with him doing splits. And on a similar but less drastic note, it’s almost as surprising to see him follow his very adult, Grammy-Album-of-the-Year winning “Morning Phase” (which itself was basically an update of his 2002 landmark “Sea Change”) with “Colors,” the most pop-oriented album of his entire career.
“Pop” is a complex term these days, and while this album won’t be mistaken for Justin Timberlake or Fifth Harmony, it’s densely loaded with hooks, harmonies, peppy beats and a cheerful, sunny vibe you rarely get from an artist so steeped in and associated with ‘90s irony. His chief collaborator here is producer Greg Kurstin, who played keyboards with Beck a dozen-odd years ago but has since become one of the biggest hitmakers in the business, working with a mind-boggling array of artists including Adele, Sia, Foo Fighters, Kendrick Lamar, Kelly Clarkson, Lana Del Rey and winning Grammy Producer of the Year earlier this year. With minimal exceptions, Beck and Kurstin wrote, played and produced the entire album themselves.
The pair race through a well-paced selection of tight songs, pulling up some big riffs on “I’m So Free” and “Lady Madonna” piano on “Dear Life,” and even a large-print “Pull you to the left/ pull you to the right” hook on “No Distraction.” It also includes two older songs, 2015’s technicolor “Dreams” and the funny-mirror psychedelia of last year’s “Wow,” which both fit the album’s vibe and stand out slightly from it.
Yet as memorable and state-of-the-art as the songs are, longtime fans may find it hard to escape the feeling that the album is another elaborate inside joke — you’re half-waiting for a knowing wink or for him to burst out laughing. But that, of course, is overthinking something that’s both as trivial and life-changing as pop music —the best course is to follow Madonna’s sage, age-old advice, and shut up and dance.