The wide-roaming music career of Beck Hansen can get a little confusing to the casual observer. People seem to respond with most enthusiasm when he splits himself clearly in two. Perhaps you prefer Sad Beck, perfectly articulating the heartache of a breakup with acoustic guitar and mournful strings on Sea Change in 2002, and revisiting the territory in 2014 on the Grammy-winning Morning Phase. Or maybe you’re more into Happy Beck, cutting and pasting hip hop-blues and lyrical surrealism on his biggest seller, Odelay, from 1996, or that bizarre introductory hit and Nineties classic, Loser.
“I think of them as completely different worlds,” he tells me. “They’re like films. I’m not just making westerns or sci-fi. Maybe it would be a sensible thing, just to dig a little corner and be the best at whatever that is. But you’re evolving all the time. You’re coming from a different place every time you make a record. Sometimes I want to shake things up and make a mess and sometimes I want to be meticulous and thoughtful. They all produce different results.”
Well I’m happy to report the return of Happy Beck on Colors, out today. At 47, a career stage when he could justifiably be doing some laurel resting, he’s come up with a collection that can sit beside Odelay as the most consistently fun thing he’s produced. From the alien hip hop of Wow, to the fizzing guitar pop of Dreams and I’m So Free, to the spacey vocal effects and beatboxing flutes of the title track, it’s a kaleidoscopic riot.
In person, he’s rather less crazy than many of his albums and live performances. I recommend whiling away a few hours on YouTube looking for performances such as Loser on Top of the Pops in 1994, when he was backed by a band of wrinkly septuagenarians, or Clap Hands in 2005 on Later… With Jools Holland, during which his band sat round a dinner table to play the glasses and cutlery. Today he’s jetlagged, sitting up straight and serious, having arrived in London from LA the day before and gone straight to a surprise gig at the tiny Omeara venue. I’m under strict orders not to ask him about being a Scientologist, but he chats enthusiastically enough about the making of the new album.
In fact, Colors isn’t that new. It’s been coming for a long time. “So long! Oh my God!” he says. He started writing the songs in 2013 in collaboration with Greg Kurstin – the 48-year-old Californian who today is a songwriting superstar known for his work with Adele, Ellie Goulding and Foo Fighters, but back in 2002 was merely Beck’s touring keyboard player. “There are certain musicians who become the core of the band, who you really rely on. He was that person at that time. We had such a great chemistry and he was instantly part of this family of musicians,” says Beck. “We talked about writing together when he was in the band. We’d listen together to music and have long discussions about things it would be amazing to do. When you hear the record, it’s very much in line with what we were talking about back then.”
Before Colors had a title, they referred to it jokingly as “Sgt. Thriller”, which certainly sets the bar high. Beck, usually far out on his own funny-shaped limb in the music world, was paying more attention to the power of pop music. “It was completely different from other records that I’ve written. It was still experimental, but it was beholden to some of the rules of pop,” he explains. Which is not to say he was gunning for Ed Sheeran’s spot at the top of the charts. “Not quite. It was more that we were thinking about the classic examples of pop craft. We wanted something that existed in that world but was coming from an artistic place as well, which is really a rare combination. It’s a foolhardy thing to attempt.”
He comes over a little crotchety when discussing the kinds of singles that become bestsellers today. “Most of the tracks out there are not laboured-over pieces of music at all. To me they feel more ephemeral, almost like a social media post. They’re very of their moment, there’s no formality of a properly constructed song. I hear those tracks and feel like we’re putting much too much work into our music.”
Even so, over the past few years there wasn’t enough time for Colors. Kurstin, now in huge demand as a co-writer and producer, couldn’t devote all his energy to the music. The pair would work together for a few days at a time, then wouldn’t see each other again for months – hence the slow completion of the album.
“When you’re working on something intensely, you kind of lose yourself in it. For most of the writing, this was the opposite of that,” says Beck. “It was interesting because it gave us this constantly evolving perspective. It took a long time, trying to make it all fit together.”
In the meantime, in 2014 Beck finished and released Morning Phase, a very different colour palette of muted, melancholy balladry. He had just gone his longest between albums – six years since Modern Guilt in 2008 – having been slowed down severely by a spinal injury suffered on a video shoot. “It was a combination of things, but the bad part was being in a video with six or seven stunt people throwing me around very aggressively. It was like being drawn and quartered, honestly. I was out of action between about 2008 and 2012.”
Did he think he might never work again? “Oh yeah, sure, for a long period of time. I could play guitar a little bit, but it was difficult. I had to start focusing on other areas.” In late 2012 he released Song Reader, 20 new songs published as sheet music for fans to perform themselves. He appeared at the Barbican in 2013 to perform a few of them alongside fans including Jarvis Cocker, Alex Kapranos, John Cooper Clarke, Ed Harcourt and The Mighty Boosh, but otherwise had barely been on a stage since 2008.
He had planned for Colors to be his explosive comeback album, rather than Morning Phase. “I wanted something more bold, more modern. I didn’t want to put out something so quiet and introspective. But at that point it had been a long time and something needed to come out.”
That doesn’t sound like he was expecting much from Morning Phase, but it became one of his bigger successes, reaching his highest UK chart placing ever and winning him the flagship Album of the Year Grammy for the first time. It was given to him by Prince, and then received even more attention because it was yet another prize that Kanye West felt Beyonce should have won. “I’d sat in that audience for many years without going to the stage. Suddenly 2015 was a busy year.”
So Colors was delayed by its predecessor’s success, then delayed again by another surprising success story. It was also scheduled to come out last year, around the time of Donald Trump’s election as US President. “Putting out this celebratory, joyful album, right as Trump was taking office, felt a little bit out of sync.”
We can all argue that there’s no more reason to celebrate today either, of course, but these spectacular songs can be held back no longer. Beck’s back at the party, and it’s about time.
Colors is released today on Virgin EMI.