Beck may be one of pop’s preeminent shape-shifters, but when you get down to it he really only makes two kinds of albums: “fun” albums, which find him in irreverent sonic prankster mode (“Odelay,” “Midnite Vultures”), and “serious” albums with more of an earnest, singer-songwriter bent (“Mutations,” “Sea Change”). He’s been focusing on the latter approach for about a decade now, and the outcry surrounding his Album of the Year Grammy win over Beyoncé for 2014’s pleasant but vanilla “Morning Phase” suggested that it was time for the pendulum to swing back. “Colors” is just the course correction Beck needed, a vibrant, catchy record that sounds like modern pop without obscuring his singular voice.
Beck has cited MGMT as an influence on the infectious lead single, “Dreams,” and the synthy, neon-bright alt-pop aesthetic they pioneered is all over “Colors.” If it feels off to hear Beck following the trends of alternative radio rather than setting them, rest assured that his hooks are still sharper, and his grooves more toe-tapping, than those of any of the faceless young bands he’s taking inspiration from. Similarly, “Wow” co-opts the “flute rap” fad, which pairs trap beats with ethereal flute loops, though the free-associative lyrics (“Standing on the lawn doin’ jiu-jitsu/ Girl in a bikini with the Lamborghini shih tzu”) ensure that there’s no confusing it for anyone else’s handiwork.
From the joyous exclamations of “I’m So Free” to the feel-good dance-party anthem “Up All Night,” most of “Colors” is relentlessly upbeat. A notable exception, and possibly the album’s best song, is “Dear Life,” which juxtaposes bouncy piano with dejected lyrics as if determined to smile through its own tears. As the record winds down, Beck indulges his sentimental side, offering a fatherly pep talk on “Square One” and singing one of the most straightforward love songs of his career on the album-closing ballad, “Fix Me.” It’s the sort of sappiness that “Loser”-era Beck would have probably rolled his eyes at, but as a gentle comedown it gets the job done.
If Beck is Generation X’s answer to David Bowie, then “Colors” is his “Let’s Dance”: an intentionally lightweight, enjoyable mid-career effort with one eye on the dance floor and one on radio playlists. Whether it returns him to his former hitmaker status remains to be seen, but “Colors” definitely succeeds in putting the spring back in Beck’s step.Terence Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley