Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
There aren’t many popular major label artists, let alone those who won a Grammy for Album of the Year, as unpredictable as Beck. So it was unlikely he would follow his somewhat surprising 2015 win in that coveted category with Morning Phase Part 2, i.e. another collection of atmospheric, relaxed songs considered a cousin to 2002’s Sea Change.
But since Beck has been teasing us with singles preceding the release of this long awaited project from as far back as last year, the sonic shift shouldn’t be surprising to fans that have stayed tapped in. It will still take a few spins to warm up to Beck’s trip back to the mid-1980s in this funky, somewhat retro sleek rocket ship. “Forward to the past” is what those who were around when new wave marketable hits from Tears for Fears, Thomas Dolby, Howard Jones, the Thompson Twins and others dominated MTV and hit radio playlists will be thinking as the flamboyant Colors unwinds.
It’s predominantly a two-man band as singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Beck works with co-producer Greg Kurstin. The equally talented latter, with credits ranging from the obtuse, somewhat experimental mid-’90s outfit Geggy Tah to the ultra-commercial Gwen Stefani (he was her musical director) and the offbeat tropicalia of The Bird and the Bee, is a logical match for the frontman’s similarly eclectic palette. Together they overdub themselves into sleek ’80s dance pop oblivion, complete with bouncy bass, programmed drums, squiggly synths and hooky choruses that partially obscure oblique lyrics like “I’ve seen it all come clean like a guillotine rose” and “You sang your swan song to the dogs/as they made mincemeat of your dreams.”
At times this slick party vibe sounds like Hall & Oates at their least soulful, which is to say the music has an inevitability to it that initially feels fresh, but starts to wear thin when it’s clear the entire album is cut from the same glitzy cloth. By the time we get to the impossibly catchy “Up All Night” at track eight (which features a hip-hop break and shlocky lyrics like “There’s nothing that I would rather do/just wanna stay up all night with you”), you’re wondering if this is some elaborate Beck in-joke. Perhaps the edgy, artsy Feist, who makes a nearly unrecognizable vocal cameo in the rock-dance “I’m So Free,” gets it, too. Note the Beatles/McCartney influences in the jaunty “Martha My Dear” piano running through “Dear Life,” along with the 10cc/Beach Boys-styled vocals — yet more stylistic borrowing that makes Colors such a joy to absorb.
This intricately layered, club-ready set is also a headphone lover’s delight as the elaborately constructed tracks unspool, revealing fresh, unexpected nuances over each spin. How seriously you take it doesn’t diminish the music’s goofy appeal or Beck’s perhaps tongue-in-cheek feel good approach.