In February 2015, Beck stood onstage at the Grammys, basking in industry adoration he richly deserved while winning an award he definitely didn’t deserve. 2014’s Morning Phase, a lovely and morose fount of transcendental folk, had just won Album of the Year over records from Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Pharrell, and, most notably, Beyoncé. This was something of a shock and a travesty, given that Beyoncé’s own self-titled 2013 album pioneered the industry-beloved surprise-release strategy and features somewhere between eight and 12 songs better than anything on Morning Phase. Beck’s suspect victory was not his fault, but Kanye West threatened to bum-rush the stage and later gave him shit about it anyway.
This cast Beck in the unflattering and dismaying role of Doddering Grammy-Night Spoiler. But even at 47 years old now (!), he’s too young, too loopy, too buoyantly unstable to be dismissed as Dad Rock drudgery. His long-delayed new album, Colors, came out Friday, a far more vibrant and euphoric affair than Morning Phase. At its best, it’s got a volatile Technicolor flair worthy of his loopiest ’90s stuff; even at its worst, it’s a wacky and workmanlike portrait of uneasy domestic bliss—a mint-condition pair of New Balance sneakers with glow-in-the-dark laces. He’s rapping again, and it’s weirder now when he raps, but in a weirdly comforting way.
“Wow” is not a great Beck song, but it’s got great-Beck-song DNA. It evokes his 1994 Buzz Bin smash “Loser” and his genre-disrupting 1996 cultural apex Odelay in sound (the junkyard-pop tomfoolery, the decaying-whistle-driven beat) and the video’s vision (cowboys, kid-friendly surrealism, awkward dancing). The question is how susceptible you are to the jigsaw jazz and the get-fresh flow of a dude who’s pushing 50 and still dropping barz like “Standing on the lawn doing jiu-jitsu / Girl in a bikini with the Lamborghini shih tzu.”
There is an unavoidable How Do You, Fellow Kids? aspect to this—a fear that Beck, who once ranked among our most deftly chameleonic young rock stars, has naturally aged out of all his personas save the sad-eyed folkie who made Morning Phase and 2002’s highly regarded Sea Change. But Colors throws a lot of playful punches, hooky and upbeat, from the guitar-driven alt-rock throwback “Dreams” to the slick, electro-pop dance parties of “No Distraction” or “Seventh Heaven.” A song like “Up All Night” has a specific connotation coming from a husband and father, but Beck sells it as playground-friendly hedonism, with the sort of musically polyglot whoosh that you can still hear in younger indie-pop bands from Local Natives to Passion Pit to Foster the People. Lots of stuff on the radio now sounds different thanks to Beck, and he’s still capable of sounding a little different, too.
My favorite Beck album is still 1999’s deeply bonkers Midnite Vultures, a rubbery and neon-dusted white-funk masterpiece of boudoir jams and abstract heated-pool high jinks. Colors at its best plays like a PG-rated version of that record, the sound of a guy cleaning up his act while still refining it. Beck never stopped working: He’s now made six full-lengths in the 2000s, none of them terrible, most of them at least a touch more funereal than his biggest fans would likely prefer. My favorite thing he’s done in the past decade is the Record Club, which involved in-studio covers of full albums recorded in a single day with various semi-famous friends, tackling everyone from the Velvet Underground to Leonard Cohen to Yanni. Here he is in 2010 doing INXS’s “New Sensation” with Liars’ Angus Andrew and a pre-supermodel-era St. Vincent.
At the time it felt like a famous and well-compensated artist settling into a post-zeitgeist phase of doing whatever with whoever, whenever. I did not expect to see him on a prominent national stage again, and it seemed as though Beck did not expect to ever step on one again. With apologies to Beyoncé, I’m glad we were both wrong. I hope Colors doesn’t win a Grammy, but I do hope he makes several more records just like it, or, more to the point, several more records that honor its spirit by not sounding like it at all.