LONDON – “It’s actually surreal that it’s finally out,” Beck Hansen says of his 13th album, “Colors.” “It’s the longest time from inception to release I’ve ever had. It’s been like a rebirth.”
Beck knows a thing or two about renewals. As alternative rock’s shape-shifting outlier, the 47-year-old has constantly sidestepped expectation. From his early and accidental Gen X-defining slacker anthem “Loser” (1994) to his sun-kissed melancholic Grammy Award-winning album “Morning Phase” (2014), Beck has worn many masks: ironic musical magpie (“Odelay,” 1996), libidinous funkateer (“Midnite Vultures,” 1999), desolate balladeer (“Sea Change,” 2002). He’s written for film, collaborated with pop royalty (Lady Gaga, P!NK) and sang onstage with Taylor Swift. David Bowie was an admirer, although even pop’s ultimate chameleon never released an album of sheet music, like Beck’s 2012 book “Song Reader,” and encouraged fans to make their own versions of unrecorded tracks.
Beck speaks to me from Los Angeles. In conversation he has a surprisingly deep drawl and is measured, occasionally laconic. “Colors” is the precise opposite. Representing Beck’s first unabashed foray into sleek, shiny, exuberant pop music, it is yet another left-field transition.
“I think I’ve had glimpses of it in the past,” he says, “but I wanted that sound for a whole record.” If “Morning Phase” was ageless, “Colors” exists in the here and now: Its electronic beats and ecstatic choruses aren’t bothered about tomorrow; it wants to get down tonight.
If all this sounds throwaway, the album’s gestation was painstaking. When he sheepishly accepted the best album Grammy from Prince in 2015 (only to be disrupted by a rather less sheepish Kanye West protesting Beyonce’s loss) Beck was already two years into creating “Colors.”
“I felt very strongly a few years ago I wanted to put out something which had a lot of light, brightness and energy, like a giant positive wave of sound. That’s what I was drawn to,” he says. “We’d been covering Michael Jackson, Bowie, The Clash in our shows, and I wanted that kind of exuberant music.” He pauses. “But it was much harder than I thought.”
With long-time cohort, producer Greg Kurstin (Adele, Sia), Beck worked on tracks “to the point of madness” to prove something to himself, and to others.
“I got tired of so many journalists saying to me ‘Your lyrics are dark and moody,’ so as an exercise I set out to see what it would be like to make something more light and how that would effect the music,” he says.
There are occasional flashes of the cut-and-paste Beckisms of yore (“standing on the lawn doing jiu-jitsu/ girl in a bikini with the Lamborghini Shih Tzu”) but much of “Colors” is love-happy stuff (“I just wanna stay up all night with you”; “it’s just another perfect night/ we’re gonna take it around the world”).
Response to “Colors” has been varied: Some feel that Beck has ceded too much of his boundary-pushing DNA by aping current trends. He insists that’s not what he’s doing.
“When I started ‘Colors’ I hadn’t made a proper record since 2008 (a spinal injury in 2005 slowed him down for years). Music has transformed sonically several times. When I came back there was a lot of reinventing — not trying to be what is happening now, at all. I’m not trying to ride some others’ coattails, but trying to create what I do in a sense that feels distinctly of this time, not a re-creating of 10 or 20 years ago. So that was a process. There was a lot of zeroing in on what that sound is, finding a sonic identity that feels true to what I do in a current sound. And it was a joy. It was like getting to repaint your house.” Was he worried about relevance? “I don’t worry about anything like that. As long as I’m creative, I don’t try and fit in to whatever is happening. You should look to make your own world.”
In the end, “Colors” boasts some of Beck’s best upbeat music in years — the title track and late-era Beatles knees-up of “Dear Life” in particular. “Colors” is indeed as vivid as its title.
“It only took me four years to come up with that,” he says with a chuckle. “I always had it, I just thought something that simple was too easy and that I should come up with something more clever. I really wanted a title that was simple and direct.”
The unforeseen wider context of world politics makes it an awkward time to be releasing a big pop album. Does that concern him?
“That’s unfortunate,” he says slightly annoyed, though I’m unsure if it is with the question or the reality. “What I planned, I mean I wrote those songs in 2013, not to put too much of a point on it. When you put it in that context it probably makes more sense. Think about what was happening in 2013. But ultimately music is timeless. It will find its home somewhere out in the world.”
He cites the example of “Debra,” the slow, Prince funk-jam closing track from “Midnite Vultures,” currently enjoying a renaissance thanks to Edgar Wright’s car chase film “Baby Driver.” He says he never knows what will be a hit, anyway.
“I don’t think anybody I worked with had any great expectations for ‘Odelay.’ And then I put out three even less-commercial records than ‘Odelay,’ which (itself) wasn’t even that commercial. But I’ve been lucky, the audience has stayed with me and been patient and gone with me in all these different types of directions.” Why does he think that is? “Part of me feels like the sound/genre/approach to recording is all a bit superficial. The music is like a conversation you have. If I’m a fan of the Beatles I don’t care if they’re doing music from India or with an acoustic guitar or if it’s loud and raucous. But you have to earn that place by the songs being good. That’s the only way you can get away with that, you have to have songs.”
Beck has those in abundance: His recent last-minute club show in London, with him in high-octane, genre-bending showman mode, was the latest sensational Beck performance I’ve witnessed. He’s looking forward to treating Japan to much of the same — now that he’s used to the material.
“I remember the first time (visiting Japan)very well. It was overwhelming! I was completely unprepared,” he recalls. “But I’ve had a long love affair with Japan now. I have a real love for that place.”
Beck plays the Nippon Budokan on Oct. 23 with special guest Cornelius (doors open at 5:30 p.m.; tickets cost ¥9,000-¥12,000). He plays Shin Kiba Studio Coast in Edo Ward on Oct. 24 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥12,000). For more information, visit www.hostess.co.jp or www.beck.com.
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