Beck’s new album ‘Colors’ marks the jubilant rebirth of a musician who not long ago found himself thinking, “Is it time to go away?” He’s back to his shapeshifting best, he tells Mark Beaumont
You can see the doorman’s logic. Some goofy longhair, a baby-faced man-child and what must be their granddad turn up at the door of an exclusive post-Grammys party asking for some guy called Mark Ronson. Of course you’re gonna tell them to sling their hook before anyone famous comes along – you don’t want any crazed weirdo fans hassling major talents like Kylie Jenner. “How VIP do we gotta get?” Sir Paul McCartney asks Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins as the door is slammed in his face. He pokes his finger at Beck. “We need another hit! Work on it!”
Beck – the slacker prince of alternative hip-pop, the breakdancing Prince of indie funktronica, introspective psych-folk journeyman and so much more besides – can laugh about it now but at the time he, Macca and Taylor being turned away from Tyga’s 2016 Grammys after-party was viral. “We were trying to find Mark Ronson’s party and somebody had given us the wrong address,” he says, “so we were literally just walking the streets looking for anything that looked like a party. Paul went, ‘Oh, that looks like a party,’ and just went up, no ceremony. It turned out we were in completely the wrong part of town.”
Behind the wry chuckles, you sense there’s a little bit of Beck that lived out his greatest fear in that moment: the fear that, after almost 25 years of chameleonic creativity, it was all over. It’s all there in the grooves. His new album ‘Colors’ is, by and large, a joyous howl of emancipation, the modernist dancefloor roar of a new lease of life unleashed. Singles like ‘Up All Night’ and ‘Dreams’ pulse with a rejuvenated, otherworldly party euphoria, a characteristic left-turn from his more sombre country-folk 2014 album ‘Morning Phase’. Beck’s music has often reflected his state of mind – witness 2002’s downbeat ‘Sea Change’ in the wake of his split from ex-fiancée Leigh Limon – so what brought on such a flamboyant pop shirt-flinger as ‘Colors’?
“If I turned on pop radio right now, I wouldn’t say this was a pop record,” Beck argues. “There’s a lot of music out there, so we thought, ‘Let’s try to make something that’s not just going to be ephemeral, something that disappears once somebody gets halfway through it’… There was a very strong positive feeling that was happening while we were making this record, this renewed appreciation and affection for playing music and the relationship with the audience, the joy of being together…”
Read More: Beck’s new album ‘Colors’ reviewed
But the record also hints that this sonic jump for joy follows a period of darkness to make mother! look like Sausage Party. The funky MGMT title track talks of “lost years”. ‘I’m So Free’ is about emerging from a time of psychological constriction, affliction and a “panic cycle”. ‘Dear Life’ is a Beatledelic cry for help: “Dear life, I’m holding on”. When pressed, Beck talks around the topic. “I did have some challenges and some struggles, just like anybody has,” he admits. “The challenges of life.” But he settles on one raw nerve that might have been prodded that night outside Tyga’s party.
“When you make music for a lot of years,” he says, “there’s sort of an expectation that you’re going to go away. In popular music it’s built in for people to come and go. There are points where you wonder if you’re overstaying your welcome. It’s not even insecurity; it’s trying to be real with yourself. Maybe it’s a common thing for musicians – at some point you wonder, do you get out of the way? When’s the point when somebody taps you on the shoulder and goes, ‘It’s time to go home’?”
During the six-year gap between ‘Sea Change’ and 2008’s ‘Modern Guilt’, when he turned to producing and collaborating with the likes of Jack White, Childish Gambino and Philip Glass and making entire covers albums of The Velvet Underground and Leonard Cohen records in a single day as the mastermind of the Record Club project, Beck stared down the fact that his days as a performer might be over.
“This was the first time I didn’t have a record deal, so I was wondering if that chapter was ending and making peace with it.” Then he signed to Capitol, ‘Morning Phase’ was hailed a masterpiece, a planned six-month tour stretched on for years (delaying ‘Colors’; Beck’s been releasing teaser tracks from the record since 2015) and he found himself utterly reinvigorated, both in the studio with producer Greg Kurstin and on the road with the band he reformed from his ’90s tours.
“It was a special, very intense and emotional thing to come back together with people that you spent such a formative time with,” he says. “You have so many great memories. Once we started playing the shows we had a few moments that really felt like something was revealing itself to me. It felt like coming back to life.” Beck from the brink, if you will, ‘Colors’ marks the jubilant rebirth of Beck: the leftfield disco king, once more brilliantly indulging that rare, restless, shapeshifting urge that has made him one of art-pop’s natural successors to Bowie’s envelope-pushing legacy (“Well, I would never proclaim…”).
No wonder Kanye West wanted to burst his bubble by hopping onstage during his Grammys acceptance speech in 2015. Has Beck seen him since? “I haven’t, no,” Beck laughs. “I’ve never met him. I’ve actually reached out to him to see if he would work on music with me. Even when I started this record, which was two years before the Grammys happened, I asked him to work on it. He was busy or not interested, I don’t know, I never got a direct answer from him.”
Shunned by someone who should know better again, but Beck didn’t need Kanye’s help to complete McCartney’s orders for another hit. His face, once more, is his pass.