In a career spanning three decades, Beck has remained one of music's most intriguing shapeshifters. From the warped folk of his earliest recordings to the chopped-up samples, hip-hop beats and lush orchestral arrangements of albums that followed, Beck has never lingered in one sonic world for long.
For his latest album, Colors, the singer takes his music in what some longtime fans may think is an odd, or overly simple, direction: The 10 songs, co-produced with Greg Kurstin, are pure, highly refined pop. But as Beck explains in this special Guest DJ session, Colors was still one of the most complicated and challenging records he's ever made. He also explains how pop music can be a finely crafted art form, why the guitar has become the stepchild of popular music and the healing power of songs that just make you feel good.
Hear the full interview with the listen button at the top of the page and read edited highlights below.
Beck on why he wanted to make a joyful album
"I wanted the record to be [one of] those kind of albums you put on, or you're in the car, and it just sort of elevates the mood a little bit — you just kind of feel a little better. I wouldn't say that's my instinctive default in the kind of records I make. So it's something that I have to kind of dig into and figure out a way to articulate that thing in a [way] that made sense for me. But this is a kind of a feeling that I wanted the record to have before I even knew what the songs were and what it was going to be all about. It's interesting, I was talking to somebody the other day and then they said, 'Well what did you want this record to be like?' And I said I just wanted it to have a lot of light. You know, when you're looking at a color you don't actually see the color, you're just seeing a reflection of light. And we all see colors differently. So, I think the best music will ever be is some sort of reflection of something that doesn't really exist. But the greatest artists — their music is filled with that kind of... you can call it love, or you can call it warmth, or just this intangible quality that just makes you feel better."
On writing and recording pop music as a refined, time-consuming art form
"There are certain songs that are harmonically complex, they're sophisticated musically but you can, as a listener, you can just find direct, immediate, simple pleasure in the song, even though it does some unusual and musically advanced things. There was a bootleg of all the sessions of [The Beatles] recording 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and just dozens of versions of the song and how they edited it together. And that was a real revelation because as a kid you think, oh they just went into the studio and recorded 'Strawberry Fields.' But what actually went into it was this incredibly complex process and this sort of experimental searching for something like a new sound and a new way of doing things. And that's always something that's stuck with me. I always wanted to do a record where you take it that far.
"So that idea of a pop record as a piece of art was something that was really fascinating to me. Like songwriting craft that goes all the way back to Motown and Phil Spector and the Brill Building. People that were in a building, writing hundreds of songs to get the one magic song. I think, more than anything, I was just curious about what happens when you go there. You hear these stories, where everyone's kind of lost their minds in the pursuit of this sort of elusive, great track. You can hear the stories from Brian Wilson or Phil Spector. There's so many stories of like the sort of extremes that they would go to make these records that were really groundbreaking in their time."
On the electric guitar's diminishing role in modern music
"There's really not much guitar on this record. I think we're sort of in a weird moment in music where the guitar is sort of a stepchild in the popular consciousness. It's not really at the center, which is fine. I think there's a lot of great music being made without guitars and we've certainly spent decades exploring it — it's still a powerful thing. It's a visceral thing. I think certain genres have to evolve and — this is an incredibly pretentious statement to make — but perhaps we're due for some sort of reinventing or pushing [of music]. You know, hip-hop is sonically, just in the last few years, it's gone to a whole new level. There's a whole new paradigm. There's a whole new sonic place that music has reached and [hip-hop] is very much a live form. And it's tough because there is a certain orthodoxy I think we hear and have to tear apart, and maybe try to embrace where we are now. I think there's a couple of albums, like the Alabama Shakes, where you feel that direct connection to sort of classic guitar music and roots but it does feel modern. And it really connects, because it's sitting in a modern space."
On writing lyrics about overcoming difficulties and the power of music to make you feel better
"The way I felt like it would work, for me, was to write from a place where you've seen and experienced difficulty, struggle, heartbreak and all these things. But there is that moment or the thing in your life that reminds you of the beauty in life, whether it's in music or nature. You know, things are complicated. There's a lot of difficulty. Trouble. But there's these very simple things that make you glad to be alive. That's something I wanted to capture [on this record]. So there [are songs] about getting through the last years or being at the end of your rope. But there is that cliché of how certain music got me through this hard time or provided some sort of solace. And I was thinking about that in [making] this record — just the fact that it's one of the things that music does. And music is a conduit for some sort of connection as well. It can have a healing effect. So it's been a powerful force in my life."