No-one was more surprised than Beck when his 2014 release Morning Phase beat Beyoncé’s self-titled, experimental powerhouse to take the Album of the Year award at the Grammys. What he graciously kept under wraps in his acceptance speech, however, was that most of his creative energies weren’t directed toward that record. At the same time that the album was being made, Beck was in the midst of writing an upbeat, pop-focused LP that had been in the works for years: a 10-track collection that, after several false starts, has finally received a release date.
The multiple postponements of the album, titled Colors, are a testament to the artist’s achievements. Writing Morning Phase without any aspirations of commercial success, Beck was forced to pump the brakes on his main project to ride the wave of support for his enigmatic, folky hit. Characteristically seeing the positive side of the delay, though, he used the time to fine-tune the new record—and, he jokes, to deal with the pressure of following up an Album of the Year. How? By sticking to the game plan that’s driven his success since his 1993 debut.
“I have a natural tendency to say, ‘Oh, I did that once—I don’t need to do it again,’” he tells the Straight, seated in a small room backstage at the Orpheum Theatre. “Colors is very different to Morning Phase—it’s a lot more dancey. When I first started, dance music was a dirty word. I did a record called Midnight Vultures where I was trying to put elements of rock into funk-based music, because that was something that my peers—the Pavements, the Radioheads, the Sonic Youths—never did. Over the years of having some songs like that, where you can get a whole room of people to have the time of their life, I thought about how I wanted to add more of those into the show.
“We brought a few more guitars, some grit, and added more layers and musical digressions to this album,” he continues. “The record was intended to get people up on their feet, which is the hardest thing to do, period. Anybody can make a track with a dance beat, but it’s like building an airplane—you can put together the frame, but can you make something that flies?”
Dabbling in everything from country-folk, hip-hop, indie-rock and more over his lengthy career, Beck is a master of reinvention. It’s a model many artists have tried and failed. Spending years perfecting a signature sound, only to shed it for the next album, has stalled a number of high-profile careers—think “purposeful pop” Katy Perry, or hypersexualized Miley Cyrus—but Beck thinks he’s found the perfect formula. Rather than reimagining his stage persona, the artist places more stock on searching for a record’s unique identity.
“When you’re working on an album, it already is what it is. You’re just trying to figure out how to fit in with it,” he recounts. “It’s about saying, ‘Okay, for whatever reason, I’m attempting to make the record like this—and it wants to be something else. How do I stop overthinking what I’m doing, and just go with what is already happening?’ Writing an album is like trying to drive a large vehicle blindfolded from the back seat. You can yell as loud as you want, ‘Turn left, turn left’, or ‘You’re about to hit a wall’, but that’s about all you can do. We’re working with frequencies, and soundwaves, and various speeds of vibrations of air. Unexpected things happen.”
Colors’s new direction of punchy, melodic pop rock owes much to in-demand songwriter Greg Kurstin, a one-time member of Beck’s band whom the artist describes as a long-lost sibling. Writing the record collaboratively—a far cry from Morning Phase, which Beck composed and arranged entirely by himself—the artist is quick to credit Kurstin for some of the album’s best riffs. The mastermind behind tracks by Foster the People, Sia, and Lana Del Rey, Kurstin adds upbeat grooves that blend that seamlessly with Beck’s trademark drawl, driving the musician’s sound on songs like the off-kilter earworm “Up All Night” and the crunchy guitar banger “No Distraction” into fresh sonic territory.
“When you work with people like Greg who are so talented, it’s like you have a secret that the world doesn’t know,” he says. “I have a number of those people in my life and I feel so lucky because I have a front row seat to watch them succeed. He’s always been so gifted, so to make this record with him has been very enjoyable for me. There’s a feeling like there’s no one watching over our shoulders and we can do whatever we want. We were like kids running a candy store. We really got to indulge. It wasn’t just all music-making—it was talking about music, and listening together.
“Music can really be a force to remind us what is beautiful in the world,” he continues. “If it’s the right sound, or the right song at the right time, it can offer these little minor revelations about the beauty of things. And that’s no small thing. Is it bread and shelter? No. But it’s a different kind of sustenance. Do we need it to survive? In some ways we do. I know I do.”
Beck’s album Colors will be released on October 13, and is available to pre-order here.
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