BECK

THROUGH A POP PRISM

Exclaim! - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEPHEN CARLICK

un­til, as Beck now re­calls, “four or five years ago,” around the same time that he’d be­gun writ­ing and record­ing a new record.

“I went in on the first day, and Phar­rell’s like, ‘We just fin­ished this song, you have to hear this. Be­fore we start any­thing, I just want to play you this.’ And he played the song ‘Happy.’ I don’t re­ally know how to ex­plain that… like, I was writ­ing some­thing like that!”

Both artists were try­ing to tap into a feel­ing that can be nearly im­pos­si­ble to ex­press with­out com­ing across as forced, cheesy or sen­ti­men­tal: joy.

“It’s that cliché that com­edy’s harder than drama. For some­thing to have buoy­ancy and light­ness, it can’t be weighed down. But some­times that weight gives some­thing sub­stance, so you’re fight­ing this dy­namic of try­ing to put some­thing very heart­felt and true into some­thing that needs to have a light­ness to it.”

With his new record, Col­ors, Beck strikes that fine bal­ance. Vivid and warm, the bois­ter­ous, chart-friendly pop record is Beck’s most ac­ces­si­ble work to date, but it’s im­bued with the weight that only a song­writer of his tal­ent and ex­pe­ri­ence could muster.

Beck’s ten­dency to jump from genre to genre ev­ery al­bum — he’s come across, at var­i­ous points, as a bluesy slacker poet, a sam­ple-crazed party-starter, a slinky funk mae­stro and a sad­sack folk bal­ladeer — has led to a rep­u­ta­tion as a mu­si­cal chameleon, an artist that not only adopts new sounds con­stantly, but masters and tran­scends them.

But while try­ing on new mu­si­cal guises comes eas­ily to Beck, for the last while, he says, he’s been push­ing him­self to dig a lit­tle deeper. The chal­lenge on Col­ors was, first and fore­most, to em­brace a more clas­sic, di­rect and con­nec­tive mode of song­writ­ing.

“Over time, you start to look at the sound and pro­duc­tion of the mu­sic as the skin, the su­per­fi­cial part. You can ob­scure the song, and put it in all of these dif­fer­ent sonic con­texts; there’s no one way to do it. I was think­ing a lot, when I was mak­ing this record, about the craft and dis­ci­pline be­hind the great mu­sic we all know and love, whether it’s Pet Sounds or Off the Wall.”

Un­der­neath Col­ors’ un­de­ni­able pop sheen are some of Beck’s most straight­for­ward, tra­di­tional songs — on a struc­tural level, not un­like those from its Al­bum of the Year Grammy-win­ning pre­de­ces­sor, 2014’s Morn­ing Phase. Which raises the ques­tion: Is Beck’s pri­mary tal­ent his abil­ity to mimic dif­fer­ent genre tropes and pro­duc­tion, or has that sonic shape-shift­ing dis­tracted us from his true genius: an on­go­ing mas­tery of songcraft it­self?

born in Los An­ge­les to ar­ranger/com­poser David Camp­bell and ac­tress/per­for­mance artist Bibbe Hansen, the artist born Bek David Camp­bell grew up fas­ci­nated by the work of his pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther Al Hansen, a par­tic­i­pant in Andy Warhol’s Fac­tory and a junk col­lec­tor whose work turned old mag­a­zines, cigarette butts and dis­carded chil­dren’s toys into col­lages and sculp­tures.

Beck’s early, anti-folk me­an­der­ings were de­fined by a ram­shackle, junk­yard sound that made them feel more like sketchbooks than fin­ished prod­ucts. They were lit­tered with ran­dom au­dio sam­ples, and the sound of­ten war­bled.

His grand­fa­ther, he’d tell Rolling Stone in 1997, “gave me the idea, maybe sub­con­sciously, that there were pos­si­bil­i­ties within the lim­i­ta­tions of ev­ery­day life, with the things that we look at that are dis­pos­able. We can ap­point our­selves to be al­chemists, turn­ing shit into gold.”

That found ob­ject aes­thetic hit an early peak on the ver­bose, densely Dadaist “Loser,” a song Beck re­leased in 1993 that, once it was un­ex­pect­edly picked up by col­lege and then main­stream ra­dio, launched him to star­dom.

“Loser” put Beck on the map — his ma­jor la­bel de­but, Mel­low Gold, was re­leased in 1994 — but it also pi­geon­holed him; quickly, he found him­self be­ing painted as the song’s tit­u­lar slacker. The pas­sion­ate, work­man­like mu­si­cian had gained a one-di­men­sional rep­u­ta­tion that nei­ther his rootsy, down-toearth K Records fol­lowup, One Foot in the Grave, nor Stere­o­pathic Soul­ma­nure, a col­lec­tion of roughly hewn record­ings from 1988 to 1993, could shake.

It wasn’t un­til 1996, when he re­leased his ground­break­ing mas­ter­piece Ode­lay — a sam­ple-heavy opus that wove hip-hop, punk and blues into a con­sis­tent, co­he­sive whole — that Beck’s in­ge­nu­ity and tal­ent were ap­pre­ci­ated. From there, he let his cre­ativ­ity run wild; 1998’s Mu­ta­tions em­braced more tra­di­tional folk and blues, but was still im­bued with animal sounds and weird sonic flour­ishes, while 1999’s Mid­nite Vul­tures dove whole­heart­edly into what many crit­ics per­ceived as pure in­dul­gence — even if, ret­ro­spec­tively, it’s easy to hear Prince and funk as clear in­flu­ences.

Beck’s enig­matic, avant-garde raw­ness put him in the com­pany of bound­ary-push­ing con­tem­po­raries like Björk and Aphex Twin, but like many artists, he felt mis­un­der­stood; even then, he ex­pressed frus­tra­tion at au­di­ences’ in­abil­ity to make sense of his lyrics. “They think I’m be­ing a clown,” he told Rolling Stone.

It’s a feel­ing that still irks Beck to­day.

“I was talk­ing to some­body yes­ter­day about, ‘When you came out, peo­ple thought your lyrics were just a bunch of gib­ber­ish!’ And I said ‘Well, let’s walk through the songs. Which lyrics?’ There was mean­ing and thought be­hind ev­ery­thing; I wanted to have ideas and thought and mean­ing in ev­ery place, you know? You could dig into it and be like, ‘Oh, he’s ref­er­enc­ing Gary Wil­son here,’ and there were al­lu­sions to new wave and Blind Wil­lie John­son all mixed up to­gether.”

It’s easy, in ret­ro­spect, to see his en­su­ing run of al­bums, start­ing with 2002’s golden-hued, melan­choly Sea Change,

as the be­gin­ning of an in­ten­tional shift to­ward mu­tual un­der­stand­ing — even the com­par­a­tively weird Guero in 2005 fea­tured more con­ven­tional pop songs like “Girl” and “Black Tam­bourine.” Fol­low­ing a Nigel Go­drich-pro­duced funk, folk and hip-hop bouil­l­abaisse (2006’s The In­for­ma­tion) and a psych­in­flected, sam­ple-rid­den Danger Mouse pro­duc­tion (2008’s Mod­ern Guilt), Beck took his in­ter­est in push­ing the bound­aries of song­writ­ing to an un­prece­dented level.

In 2012, he re­leased Song Reader, a sheet mu­sic-only al­bum that was in­ter­preted, song-by-song, by mu­si­cians as var­ied as No­rah Jones, Jack White and Jarvis Cocker. These were songs whose bones were set by Beck, but whose skin and mus­cu­la­ture

You get the idea, the po­ten­tial of what it could be, but to get it there could be ar­du­ous and heart­break­ing.

oth­ers sculpted. Genre didn’t mat­ter; the songs did.

It was around Song Reader’s re­lease that Beck con­ceived Col­ors, but he was al­ready prep­ping Morn­ing Phase as well. With his fo­cus squarely on song­writ­ing, he was si­mul­ta­ne­ously out­fit­ting some of his new songs in tra­di­tional folk garb, oth­ers in pop star se­quins.

Beck toured re­lent­lessly fol­low­ing Morn­ing Phase’s re­lease, but rarely played more than a hand­ful of cuts from it — he was more in­ter­ested in re­con­fig­ur­ing a breadth of older ma­te­rial in or­der to best con­nect with his au­di­ence.

“I work for the au­di­ence and with them. I can never re­late to this idea of get­ting up there, and ‘Every­one’s lucky to be here and maybe if you’re lucky I’ll play one or two songs that you wanted to hear.’ Maybe it’s com­ing from a work­ing class fam­ily, or it’s just sort of what I like about mu­sic — that it can bring all these peo­ple to­gether, some cry­ing, or singing or danc­ing.”

In 2013, Beck called Greg Kurstin, the song­writ­ing and pro­duc­tion heavy­weight be­hind hits by Kylie Minogue, Sia, Kelly Clark­son and Adele’s Grammy Award-win­ning 25, to col­lab­o­rate on a new LP. “Beck wanted to make a party record,” Kurstin ex­plains by email. “He wanted to make a body of work that would trans­late into a fun live ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Kurstin, Beck knew, was not only an ex­pert in songcraft, but was in­ti­mately fa­mil­iar with Beck’s process and pre­vi­ous cat­a­logue; af­ter join­ing Beck’s Sea Change tour­ing band in 2002, Kurstin played on both The In­for­ma­tion and Mod­ern Guilt. Shortly af­ter, he em­barked on a song­writ­ing ca­reer that led to his cur­rent stand­ing as a go-to pro­ducer and song­writer.

The ses­sions with Kurstin, Beck says, went just as ex­pected. “It was great, very nat­u­ral — just an ex­ten­sion of what we’ve al­ways done. It was great for me, be­cause I never had some­body to bounce things off of. It was my best ideas and his best ideas.”

Writ­ing the first draft of the joy­ous Col­ors was, ac­cord­ing to Beck, the easy part. Harder was fine-tun­ing them, en­sur­ing that they did ex­actly what he wanted with­out get­ting away from him.

“The songs were there quickly, for the most part — and a few times we got lucky, like with ‘Dear Life,’ which was writ­ten in a few hours — but most of the record was a long, painstak­ing process. You get the idea, the po­ten­tial of what it could be; you have in your mind this Sgt. Pep­per’s ul­ti­mate ver­sion of what the song could be, fully re­al­ized, but to get it there could be ar­du­ous and heart­break­ing. I can hear it, but I have to make it so that every­one else can hear the same thing.”

The record’s ti­tle track is up­beat, but con­veys a sense of yearn­ing via its beat­less, at­mo­spheric pre-cho­rus and echoed, pitch-shifted cho­rus. Else­where, the peppy “No Dis­trac­tion” fea­tures Beck’s most soar­ing mo­ments to date, with just enough of the bom­bast that Kurstin lent Te­gan and Sara’s last two al­bums, while “Up All Night” is a till-dawn party jam that dou­bles as a love song. It all comes to a close with the early morn­ing sweet­ness of the al­bum’s only bal­lad, “Fix Me,” a per­fect end­ing to the al­bum’s just-right 45-minute run­time.

These days, and on Col­ors in par­tic­u­lar, Beck seems less in­ter­ested in freak­ing peo­ple out than in bring­ing them to­gether.

“Great songs can bring peo­ple to­gether and have an up­lift­ing qual­ity, you know, whether it’s Prince or the Beach Boys at their best. Even punk rock has its own ex­u­ber­ance. There’s that qual­ity to a lot of gen­res.”

He points to Ken­drick La­mar as a mod­ern artist who both em­braces clas­sic songcraft and says some­thing about the mo­ment in which they’re creat­ing.

“I saw Ken­drick play last night, and he was in a gi­ant arena, huge place. It was just him alone on­stage, with his songs, and ev­ery­body was singing with their arms up the whole show.

That’s just one of those ex­am­ples of some­body speak­ing how peo­ple are feel­ing in the mo­ment, and ev­ery­body al­ready un­der­stands it. They were just wait­ing for some­body to ar­tic­u­late it.”

Col­ors doesn’t have poignant mes­sages like those at the cen­tre of La­mar’s work, but Beck is tuned into what’s go­ing on in mod­ern mu­sic, and as such, re­mains a cen­tral part of the con­ver­sa­tion. He’s still lis­ten­ing, still grow­ing and still search­ing for new ways to ap­proach his craft. And joy, as the cap­ti­vat­ing song­writ­ing on Col­ors demon­strates, suits him well.

“To me, there are great songs that are just on the verge of ba­nal­ity and cliché, but not quite; in­stead, they’re on the most pro­found level pos­si­ble,” he says, in­vok­ing Phar­rell’s “Happy” once more. “That’s some­thing where I feel like I’m some­times still in school — to fig­ure out how that works.”

beck and Phar­rell Wil­liams had never worked to­gether

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.