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The Many Colors of Beck, our Favorite Musical Chameleon

Posted by Eric Stensvaag on Oct 25, 2017 5:28:37 PM

Beck Albums Ranked on the Color Spectrum

Beck’s long-awaited 13th album has arrived. Entitled Colors, it continues an unpredictability streak established early in his career. The energetic, poppy Colors follows the “serious,” mostly downtempo Morning Phase.

Most artists have a well-defined, identifiable sound or one that evolves somewhat organically over time. A few examples include U2, Foo Fighters, and Nine Inch Nails. Beck’s output falls outside of this norm, often zigzagging between musical styles while still managing to retain his distinctive voice.

Over more than 20 years, Beck has proven himself to be a highly adaptable musical chameleon. In tribute to the stylistic diversity of Beck’s discography, I’ve chosen a specific color to represent each of his albums (except his out-of-print debut). It seems an appropriately quirky way to showcase the prismatic range of this singer-songwriter.

Stereopathetic Soulmanure (1994):  BROWN

Not to take the second part of the album title too literally, but this one is a bit of a gimme. SS showcases Beck’s love of dusty country and dirty, lo-fi punk songs. While brown isn’t perhaps the most exciting color—and this is far from Beck’s most essential release—there’s an appealing down-to-earth quality in many of these tracks. Key Song: “Rowboat

Mellow Gold (1994):  YELLOW

Again, a somewhat literal interpretation of the album’s title. But it fits. At times there’s a disoriented haziness to the yellow, but this is the warmest, most polished of Beck’s ’94 album trio. There’s an unmistakably sunny quality to the tongue-in-cheek hit “Loser.” And you can bet golden suds played a part in the creation of “Beercan” and other MG highlights. Fun fact: Beck was a leaf blower early in his career and had lots of time to contemplate the auburn palette that fell at his feet while developing these tunes. Key Song: “Blackhole

One Foot in the Grave (1994):  GRAY

Gray like the color of guitar strings that power this album. This is Beck’s version of the blues, with songs as downcast as its title suggests. While his songwriting isn’t yet fully developed, OFitG is appealingly monochromatic and consistent in mood. Key Song: “Asshole

Odelay (1996):  PINK

While it would also be valid to label Odelay a vivid kaleidoscope, therae’s a bright, playful vibe to the album that conjures the color pink. Even fans of the eccentric Mellow Gold were unprepared for the audacious vibrancy of songs like “The New Pollution.” Odelay put everyone on notice of the musical jester lurking within the ordinary-looking Beck. Pop music would never be the same after this fusion of hip-hop, electronica, country, punk, and on and on…Key Song: “Where It’s At

Mutations (1998):  GOLD

It doesn’t shine as brightly as Odelay or some later albums, but Mutations glows. There’s a smooth, steady radiance to these songs. Part of this warmth is captured by the sparkling, clear production of Radiohead guru Nigel Godrich. And part is cast by Beck’s embrace of Brazilian tropicalia. Key Song: “Cold Brains

Midnight Vultures (1999):  PURPLE

Here’s the flip side of Odelay, replacing an endearingly goofy bandleader with a winking sex god. This is Beck’s coolest album, and there’s a funky, extravagant vibe that feels purple…even before we get to Prince-channeling closer “Debra.” The songs contain his most outrageous and funny lyrics—“I'll feed you fruit that don't exist; I'll leave graffiti where you've never been kissed,”—and implausible musical mash-ups like the bluegrass banjo that party crashes “Sexx Laws” at 2:20. Key Song: “Nicotine & Gravy

Sea Change (2002):  BLUE

Blue describes this album on multiple levels. Even if you don’t know the backstory, heartbreak saturates Beck’s first album to dispense with irony. He replaces the synthesizer banks of Midnite Vultures with blankets of acoustic string instruments, but Beck’s detached singing and crisp miking keep things cool. Blue like the turbulent sea. Key Song: “Lonesome Tears

Guero (2005):  WHITE

The Spanish word guero translates roughly to “whitey.” On this album and others, Beck filters frequently African-American and Latin styles through his unmistakably white voice. He actually quotes the Beastie Boys—the other white pop artist with credibility performing black music—in album opener “E-Pro.” So Guero is textbook white in the way it reflects and scatters all other colors. There’s also paleness to the album’s unexpectedly grim lyrical content. Key Song: “Hell Yes

The Information (2006):  SILVER

Someone break out the disco ball! Even the uber-adaptable Beck finds the information age and technology to be overwhelming, so he channels his anxiety into a dance party. Like kindred spirits Radiohead and LCD Soundsystem, Beck achieves catharsis by layering the technology itself into dense, sparkly grooves and forging beautiful melodies from often-bleak lyrics. Key Song: “Cellphone’s Dead

Modern Guilt (2008):  GREEN

The birth of the cool that began with Midnite Vultures continues through Modern Guilt. Whether the influence of family life (Beck’s second child was born shortly before this album) and/or the creative infusion of new producer Danger Mouse, there’s a verdant vitality to the album. Beck’s cool hunter instincts remain intact as he delves into retro garage and psychedelic rock styles. Key Song: “Modern Guilt

Morning Phase (2014):  ORANGE

Morning Phase springs directly from the blueprint of Sea Change, with similar instrumentation, tempos, and lyrical themes. The album is a resigned meditation on mortality , and this go-round Beck allows the lushly orchestrated songs to glow the gentle orange of daybreak. (Or dusk, if you permit the double meaning of “mourning.”) Key Song: “Blackbird Chain

Colors (2017):  RED

With its complete embrace of pop, Colors is sure to frustrate some purist Beck fans. For others, the bright sound and lyrics reveal yet another dimension of an artist who refuses to conform to expectations. His boldest, happiest album corresponds to red, though Colors is a perfect title for the animated confection he’s created. While it’s a wonderfully fun stand-alone album, Colors becomes especially fascinating when viewed on a spectrum alongside Beck’s other works. Key Song: “Dreams (Colors Mix)

Coda

In his unwillingness to choose a stylistic lane, Beck has instead paved an artistic path all his own. His reputation as a colorful, crazy diverse musician is well earned and his albums continue to delight and surprise. Thanks to Beck and other musical mavericks, pop music continues to outgrow the genre categorizations that once hemmed in artists and albums. And is more interesting for it…

Image Credit: NPR, Pictame

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