The defining question regarding any new Beck album is which Beck he’ll be. Will it be the sad, contemplative Beck of mopey masterpieces like Sea Change and the Grammy-winning Morning Phase? Or will the party-starter behind Odelay poke his head out, armed with nonsensical phrases and looped beats? The long, long runway toward Colors—whose original release date was scheduled a full year ago—has pointed in a couple different directions, though both of them more toward the “Party Beck” camp: “Dreams,” which came out way back in 2015, bumps along in straightforward rock mode, catchy but ultimately sort of weightless. “Wow,” which surfaced 18 months ago, takes the party in far more intriguing directions: Built around a keening, new age-y synth and fat synth bass, it’s a weird new classic, sneakily inventive and massively catchy.
It might be telling that Beck nearly left “Wow” off of Colors, but was convinced by his label—and his kids—to include it. It’s the most purely enjoyable track on the record, nodding back to his “Loser” days while also feeling modern, with hints of The Weeknd and Frank Ocean in its DNA. (The following lyric will almost surely be quoted in many Colors reviews for its overwhelming Beck-ishness: “Standing on the lawn doing jiu jitsu / Girl in a bikini with a Lamborghini shih tzu.”) “Wow” is also one of only two tracks not produced and co-written by superproducer Greg Kurstin, a former member of Beck’s touring band who’s gone on to co-write and produce massive records for the likes of Sia, Kelly Clarkson, and Adele. Kurstin is partially responsible for “Chandelier,” “Stronger,” and “Hello,” so his bona fides are strong.
But it’s not like Kurstin brings a specific sound to the artists he works with. He’s more likely to coax out a songwriter’s best than to put his own stamp on things. That’s an odd position for a performer like Beck, whose albums have been deeply associated with the people he’s chosen to work with: The Dust Brothers on Odelay, Nigel Godrich on Sea Change and Mutations. Colors feels most similar to 2008’s unjustly overlooked, slightly undercooked Modern Guilt, produced by Danger Mouse. Both find Beck flitting between the desire to make a simple rock record and the itch for something more fun and funky.
The results on Colors can be hit or miss depending on how much personality Beck and Kurstin push to the fore. Both “Seventh Heaven” and “No Distraction” almost feel like they’re trying to take as many of Beck’s quirks out of the equation as possible. “I’m So Free,” on the other hand, gets slinky and weird, with Beck going from falsetto to half-rap, undercut by a snarling guitar and hip-hop beats. “Square One” pulls almost the same trick, with fantastically funky results; it’s a cousin to the Beck that made “Debra,” now all grown up.
Colors closes with a nod to those of us most enamored of sad-mode Beck. “Fix Me” is a gorgeously melancholy mood piece that would’ve fit nicely on Morning Phase. Beck wrote and produced the track himself, adding an acoustic strum to its synth wash and simple backbeat. It’s telling that it’s the polar opposite of the album’s other great song, “Wow”—one’s silly, the other contemplative. They’re proof, in a way, that Beck is at his best when he’s navigating the margins rather than playing to the middle. Colors is solid—Beck doesn’t make bad records, whatever mode he’s in—and it flirts with greatness, but he’s at his best when he decides to either get loose or get serious, less so when he drives straight down the center.