Beck’s New Pop Album Excites And Disappoints In Turn

Rock Music was wedded to Pop Music right from the very start. The Beatles were probably the best, most important Rock artists of all time, but they were also the biggest Pop artists ever. Back in the early days of Rock, the distinction between Rock and Pop was blurry, but it didn’t matter all that much: a Rock act whose music made the pop charts was called Pop/Rock, and most Classic Rock artists fell under this good-time umbrella.

But over the past 40 years or so, even though the Pop/Rock designation survives anachronistically, Pop and Rock have been experiencing a long, slow estrangement, to the point where very few Rock artists make the pop charts any more, pushed aside by electronica, hip hop and R&B. Maybe Beck had this in mind when he recorded his new album Colors, which hit the shelves this week. With this collection of pure Pop confection, maybe Beck is taking a stand re-staking Rock’s claim to a piece of the Pop pie.

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He’s certainly the right man for the job. It sounds paradoxical, but making good mindless popular Pop is not easy to do. It takes special musical instincts to find the place where the right sound, the right words and the right feeling meet in a way that appeals to large swaths of people, and Beck has shown us time and time again the extraordinary gifts he carries in his musical kit bag.

Pop is also mostly populated by upbeat, happy songs, and any songwriter will tell you that it is much harder to write a happy song than it is to write a sad one without sounding derivative and trite. But Beck is a fabulous songwriter. His last album Morning Phase – which deservedly won the Grammy Album Of The Year for 2015 – was like an instruction manual for singer/songwriter-type material, the songs being so brilliantly crafted.

So with Colors Beck turns his songcraft mastery to the world of pop, and it works just as brilliantly as an exercise in songwriting and record-making. But from the listener’s perspective, if you’re not a devotee of recent Pop it works a little less well. Perhaps it’s unfair to say the album lacks the depth or range or feeling of some of Beck’s best albums, because Pop is not supposed to have too much depth or range or feeling. But I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed, I suppose mostly because my expectations for a Beck album are pretty high at this point.

Still, there are some great moments, and maybe the album should be digested song by song, because Pop was always about singles and not albums. I think three or four of these songs are destined to have a very long shelf life. Beck told Rolling Stone recently that the album was neither retro nor modern, which is very true, but there seem to be very specific tips of the hat towards several post-Eighties Pop/Rock heroes.

“I’m So Free” has a power chord chorus that sounds like it came right off a Green Day record. “No Distraction” is as obvious a nod to The Police as there could be without actually covering them. One of the best tracks “Seventh Heaven” sounds an awful lot like today’s EuroRock giants Phoenix, while my favorite track “Dear Life”, which I raved about earlier, could very well be an homage to modern Rock masters Spoon.

You could go through the whole album and, one by one, pick out the Pop styles from the past 30 years that were being paid homage to. But despite the different structures and instrumentations on the individual songs, there’s a certain sameness to the album as a whole, and maybe that’s the ultimate statement Beck is making about Pop Music. At the end of the day, there are still some brilliant moments on this record, but we continue to wait for the day this artist finally delivers his masterpiece.

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