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'Colors' Continues Beck's Postmodern Pastiche

Oct 20, 2017
Originally published on October 20, 2017 5:11 pm

The last time most of us saw Beck, he was onstage at the Grammy awards accepting the Album of the Year honor for his 2014 work Morning Phase and almost being interrupted by Kanye West.

Days after Beck's Grammy moment, his press agent put the word out: The eclectic songwriter would release new music – upbeat, party songs he'd been recording over several years. That track, called "Dreams," came out as a single in June of 2015. And then it was pretty much radio silence until now.

What took Colors, the newly released follow-up album, so long? Chalk it up to the great paradox of songcraft: Those effortless-sounding slices of pop euphoria — the moments that make you want to forget the world and crank up the volume — often involve painstaking detail work. Beck spent almost four years recording and mixing these songs; at least part of his challenge was making the music he'd labored over feel loose and spontaneous.

Beck grew up in Los Angeles recording studios. Music veterans will recall that his father, the arranger and orchestrator David Campbell, would sometimes bring his young son to sessions. Evidently, it left an impression: Ever since "Loser," his 1994 breakthrough single, Beck has specialized in fantastical, willfully odd sonic jumbles, as in the track "I'm So Free."

The new album continues Beck's postmodern pastiche. With abrasive noise, thrift-store sounds and his father's ear-stretching orchestrations all vying for attention at once, you have to listen closely. His lyrics are more forthright this time, and there are even attempts at straightforward, Beatles-influenced pop in "Dear Life."

Not every track on the new album has that effortless alchemy. Sometimes it feels like the original spark is buried under layers of sheen. Those moments are reminders of just how hard it is to manufacture pop exuberance under studio conditions — but they're quickly erased whenever another of those airborne, bliss-seeking hooks comes along.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Beck is back. His last big public moment was a couple of years ago at the Grammys, when he was accepting his award for album of the year. The presenter was Prince.

(SOUNDBITE OF 57TH ANNUAL GRAMMY AWARDS)

PRINCE: And the winner is "Morning Phase," Beck.

KELLY: That got Kanye West mad because Beyonce didn't win. So he jumped on stage, prompting Beck to joke...

(SOUNDBITE OF 57TH ANNUAL GRAMMY AWARDS)

BECK: I need some help. Come back.

KELLY: And now Beck's follow-up album is out. It is called "Colors." Tom Moon has our review.

TOM MOON, BYLINE: Days after Beck's Grammy moment, his press agent put the word out - the eclectic songwriter would release new music soon, upbeat party songs he'd been recording over several years. That track called "Dreams" came out as a single in June of 2015.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMS")

BECK: (Singing) Come on out of your dreams and wake up from your reverie. Time is here. Don't go to sleep. The streets are running on the brink.

MOON: And then it was pretty much radio silence until now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO DISTRACTION")

BECK: (Singing) It's not the words I want to tell you. It's not the tension that I feel.

MOON: So what took so long? Chalk it up to the great paradox of song craft. Those effortless-sounding slices of pop euphoria, the moments that make you want to forget the world and crank up the volume, they often involve painstaking detail work. Beck spent almost four years recording and mixing these tracks. At least part of his challenge was making the music he'd labored over feel loose and spontaneous.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLORS")

BECK: (Singing) Now it would only hurt to know when you don't need me. You don't need me. Found our way through the lost years.

MOON: Beck grew up in Los Angeles recording studios. Music veterans recall that his father, the arranger and orchestrator David Campbell, would sometimes bring his young son to sessions. Evidently that left an impression. Ever since "Loser," his 1994 breakthrough single, Beck has specialized in fantastical, willfully odd sonic jumbles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M SO FREE")

BECK: (Singing) Who am I supposed to be in the middle of the day with no good connection? I'm so free now. They try to keep me down with affliction, alpha male fell asleep in the engine. I'm so free now. A horizontal aspiration...

MOON: The new album continues Beck's postmodern pastiche with abrasive noise, thrift store sounds and his father's ear-stretching orchestrations all vying for attention at once. You have to listen closely. Beck's lyrics are more forthright this time, and there are even attempts at straightforward Beatles-influenced pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAR LIFE")

BECK: (Singing) You drove your Rolls into the swamp. You stole away like a thief, reeling from the sticker shock of the price they put upon your soul. You buy it back from the burning ashes of the devil you know.

MOON: Not every track on Beck's new album has that effortless alchemy. Sometimes it feels like the original spark is buried under layers of sheen. Those moments are reminders of just how hard it is to manufacture pop exuberance under studio conditions. And they're quickly erased whenever another of these airborne, bliss-seeking hooks comes along.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEVENTH HEAVEN")

BECK: (Singing) I want to see you with the pharaoh's curse, the apple flower doggerel. The batteries burst.

KELLY: The latest from Beck is called "Colors." Our reviewer is Tom Moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEVENTH HEAVEN")

BECK: (Singing) Suntan ellipse and the filigree of energy. What you want and what you need. Now I'm down... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.