I confess that it took me a while to get Beck.
If you were alive in 1994, you could not possibly have escaped “Loser,” Beck’s signature hit. A bluesy acoustic shuffle over electronic boom-boom drums with lyrics in Spanish and a lackadaisical half-rap vocal style, “Loser” was like nothing else. It was like a weird novelty record from the future. It was also the only song like it on Mellow Gold, which remains one of the strangest major-label debuts in history.
I heard Mellow Gold a couple times, then filed it away, expecting it would be the last I would hear of Beck. Maybe, I thought, he’d eke out a couple more bizarre records, but no one would pay any attention to them. Happily, he’s gone on to surprise me (and everyone else) again and again. No one expected the sophisticated cut-and-paste pop chemistry of Odelay, nor the gentle Mutations, nor the Prince-tastic joke-a-thon Midnite Vultures, nor the beautiful and ethereal Sea Change. For the next 20-some years, Beck became one of our most nimble sonic chameleons, to the point where you never quite knew where he was going to land next.
Three years ago, Beck dropped Morning Phase, a spiritual sequel to Sea Change that found him treading old ground for the first time. That’s not to say that the album wasn’t wonderful, because it was. But where the erstwhile Mr. Hansen used to pull the rug out with each new record, now we find ourselves switching between two modes: Somber Beck and Party Beck. This isn’t necessarily a complaint, since both modes have produced great work. It’s just more predictable.
Colors, Beck’s newly released 13th album, is Party Beck, which isn’t a surprise. But if he were that boring, this would be the end of the review. The truth is, Colors is great, well worth the three-year wait. It’s the most low-key and mature record Party Beck has made – he’s 47 years old now, too much of a grown-up for the jump-cut hysteria of Odelay. With one glaring exception, Colors is straight-ahead melodic bliss, the work of a confident elder statesman who still likes to dance.
For this record, Beck worked mainly with Greg Kurstin, whose stock in trade is this flavor of pop – sweet and melody-driven, but far from the realm of your Taylor Swifts and Justin Biebers. These songs are classic pop, simple and driving and hummable, and all dressed up in their finest clothes. There’s a hint of Beck’s ‘90s roots on “I’m So Free,” and a nice nod to the happier end of Elliott Smith’s oeuvre on “Dear Life.” “No Distraction” sounds like a lost Police hit from 1983 with a dance-floor update.
There’s a danger that Beck’s electro-dance-pop will not age as well as he does, and Colors should put that to rest. It all feels graceful and agile, never dipping into embarrassment. Well, except once – the pre-release single, “Wow,” which doesn’t fit this album at all. Reportedly included on Colors because of label pressure, “Wow” is everything the rest of the album isn’t: a labored attempt to be modern that flails desperately and falls flat. Luckily, it’s followed by “Up All Night,” one of the most delightful slices of fun here, so it’s a memory soon forgotten. But it shouldn’t be here at all.
Nine out of ten is a pretty good average, though, and Colors is mostly dynamite. While it’s not as whiplash-inducing as some of his previous shifts, it does stake out its own territory in his catalog – he’s never quite brought his party mode and his melodic instincts together as well as this. And if you listen to this and, say, The Information back to back, you’ll be surprised at how far he’s come, and how different this is. I’m quite pleased with this record, and if Party Beck wants to continue in this vein, I’m all for it. But knowing him, I’m sure another tonal shift is around the corner.
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Speaking of shapeshifters, here’s Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent. And it’s probably about time that I admit something pretty weird.
While I think Clark is terrifically talented, and I have enjoyed every St. Vincent album, I honestly can’t remember them. I’m looking now at the track listings for Marry Me and Actor and Strange Mercy, albums I swear I heard and enjoy, and I can’t recall a note from any of them. It’s hard for me to think of this as Clark’s fault – she’s a mix of Kate Bush and Prince, a multi-instrumentalist with a flair for the dramatic and a coy sensuality, all things I enjoy. But man, I can’t even remember how “Cheerleader” goes, and I know people who have covered it.
So it’s a good thing that I’m re-listening to her fifth album, Masseduction, as I write this. The album even looks like a departure – the cover is a view of Clark’s backside, lit in red, the most sexualized image she has used. The record is her most mainstream-sounding, full of electronic beats and synthesized noises, and I’m inclined to credit her collaboration with Jack Antonoff (one half of fun. and the sole member of Bleachers) with this shift, but mostly I think it’s just Clark trying on new tones like new outfits, as she always has.
It’s a lot to take initially, though. The title track finds her purring “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” in a tone both sexy and menacing. “Sugarboy” is a blippy synth nightmare on overdrive with freaky shouted gang vocals and an interlude that sounds like a video game. “Los Ageless” is a pretty simple pop song dressed up in a stomping beat and a squirrely electro bass sound that gets more abrasive as it goes, and it ends with a spoken word coda. “Savior” is a strange detour into fetish-land, and it leads into “New York,” a genuinely pretty tune with the hook line “you’re the only motherfucker in the city who can stand me.” “Fear the Future” is a jittery, skittering thing with a big Tori Amos-style chorus.
It’s a lot to process, and I’m normally excited by records that throw this much at me. Weirdly, though, Masseduction glides right by me, leaving no lasting mark. It’s good – in fact, the closer, “Smoking Section,” flirts with brilliance – and I admire Clark for being this individualistic, for creating albums that could come from no one else. I like it while it’s playing, much like I have enjoyed all of her work while I’m listening to it. But I can already tell it isn’t going to stick with me, no matter how many times I listen. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s probably not Masseduction’s fault. Take that as you will.
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Finally, we have the legendary Robert Plant, who definitely qualifies as a shape shifter, and whose current band is called the Sensational Space Shifters.
Plant is 69 years old now, and what a career he’s carved out for himself. His decade fronting Led Zeppelin guaranteed him the freedom to do whatever he wanted from then on, and he’s used that freedom to explore every kind of music he can grace with that velvet voice. From his brief stint with the Honeydrippers to his electro-metal Now and Zen period to his subtle and beautiful work with Strange Sensation to his career-highlight collaboration with Alison Krauss, Plant has done everything imaginable.
So what’s left? His 11th solo album, Carry Fire, is his second with the Space Shifters, and it finds him harnessing this spectacular band to create the most beautiful music he can. Over time Plant’s voice has weathered and aged into a creaky yet wizened thing – he’s still capable of hitting those higher notes and belting it out when he chooses to, but these days he’s more interested in whispering to us, in singing with restraint and reserve. He knows he has nothing more to prove.
To that end, quite a lot of Carry Fire stands with the prettiest work he’s done. “Season’s Song” is a gentle acoustic hymn that builds in intensity, sung with an airy grace. “Dance with You Tonight” takes its rolling rhythm and sculpts it into a gorgeous bit of sunlight. “A Way With Words” is almost too intimate, the microphone picking up every breathy sound from Plant’s mouth, but it works with the sparse, swaying music. Even an uptempo piece like opener “The May Queen” concentrates on being as beautiful as possible.
All of this is not to say that the Space Shifters don’t crank up the amps here and there. “New World” and “Bones of Saints” are stompers, while “Carving Up the World Again… A Wall and Not a Fence” is a bluesy state of the union address that kicks. And the title track is a stunning bit of Middle Eastern dance music. Plant has assembled one of his very best bands, and they knock it out of the park again and again here.
If there’s anyone who doesn’t need to keep creating new music, it’s Robert Plant. He doesn’t need the money, and he’s already immortal. But I’m beyond glad that he does. Each new album is an exploration of tone, mood and style unlike any Plant has made before. After nearly 50 years as a recording artist, Plant is still charting new territory, taking that voice new places. It’s more than we deserve.
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That’s it for this week. Next week, probably Scandroid. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.