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Beck’s “Dear Life” Is Neither Serious or Silly Enough

GLASTONBURY, ENGLAND - JUNE 26: Beck performs on the Pyramid Stage on day 3 of the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 26, 2016 in Glastonbury, England. Now its 46th year the festival is one largest music festivals in the world. The Festival, which Michael Eavis started in 1970 when several hundred hippies paid just £1, now attracts more than 175,000 people. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Beck is 47–can you even believe it? Countless iconic and innovative rock’n’rollers have done amazing work even as they’ve aged into the establishment, with the number of studio albums they’ve released moving into the double-digits. But there are usually awkward periods for most of them as their tenure wears on. The new jambalayas they build out of repurposed scraps from their past work may turn out strange and not-entirely convincing. These sorts of albums come across like a bunch of things put together, rather than a bold, unified new edifice. Beck began to wrestle with this problem in earnest in the mid-2000s, with a trio of increasingly variegated, genre-hopping albums that mixed and matched his chameleonic musical reference points into less-than-perfect statements: 2005’s Guero, 2006’s The Information, and 2008’s Modern Guilt. With the advance tracks he’s released from his upcoming album Colors (out October 13) the same old issues seem to be plaguing him once again.

Unlike Beck’s last LP Morning Phase, a somber and strummy album that felt like a big, clear, and unified statement (if so unified that it became sporadically soporific), the new songs from the singer-songwriter’s upcoming album Colors evoke their title. They sound like raw blobs of paint thrown hastily on the canvas and only very-lightly mixed. In theory, the prospect seems appealing: a touch of whimsy and experimentation a la Beck’s golden era. Last year’s “Wow” was the most extreme example: Beck–who, again, is 47–freestyling about “Lamborghini Shih Tzus” and “pissing in the wind cause it’s so pine fresh” over damaged boom-bap beats. Chance the Rapper, apparently, was supposed to be on the track originally.

To those of us who prize the madcap musical Rube Goldberg machines of Midnite Vultures and Odelay far above anything else in Beck’s catalogue, “Wow” was an intriguing proposition that felt unexpected, too. However, the posture was a bit awkward: The word jumbles were a bit too indulgent, and the sighing hook grew tiresome too quickly. At least it had the right spirit–namely, no hint of self-seriousness, which is important sometimes. However, it was certainly better than the two sheeny Beck-ian club anthems that trickled out over the past two years, and which will also be included on Colors. FIFA ’17 jock jam “Up All Night” was a forgettable entry into the sounds-kinda-like-“Lucky” subgenre of dance-pop, while 2015 single “Dreams” was an abrasive chicken-scratch-guitar-driven disco experiment, with an awkwardly sutured-on psych-rock breakdown for subversive flair.

“Dear Life,” which premiered today with pomp and circumstance on Zane Lowe’s ubiquitous Beats 1 show, consists of a much-less-fun string of lyrical non-sequiturs than “Wow.” The musical ideas hold together only a little bit more logically than the words. Perhaps the main problem is that the juxtaposition of the sounds themselves are brittle and unappealingly familiar–the honky-tonk Paul McCartney/Figure 8 piano texture imported from indie-pop of the last decade that leads off the song, for instance, against the bright, dry sound of the drum kit. The herky-jerky rhythms and somber harmonies in the chorus feel like the opposite of a payoff after the circular chord changes and lyrical verbosity of the verses, devised from pop and blues idioms oddly sutured together: “You buy your bag from the burning ashes of the devil,” “money talks to your conscience looking like a fool for love,” and so on.

There’s no humor here, but it doesn’t have Morning Phase‘s well-quaffed, slightly stern dignity to make up for it. The best we can hope for, perhaps, is that the half-plus of Colors we haven’t yet heard will feature some Beck-core bromides that grab one’s attention, rather than feeling like a bit of a chore to sit through.