John Anson Ford Amphitheatre
Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2017
Toward the end of his loose, rollicking set at the Ford Amphitheatre in the Hollywood Hills, Beck Hansen pulls back his white blazer to point out the pattern on his black-and-white shirt. "They're palm trees," he notes. "But not tropical palm trees. They're Los Angeles palm trees. They're beautiful and full of rats."
Throughout the two-hour performance, one of his first following last week's release of his long-awaited latest album, Colors, the often mercurial singer-songwriter is in a relaxed, chatty mood, frequently pausing between songs to regale the crowd of around 1,200 with stories about Los Angeles, the city he's called home all his life. He talks about how, in the early days of Hollywood, they used to have camel races down Cahuenga. He introduces two tracks from Morning Phase, his mostly acoustic 2014 album, as "canyon songs," a reference to L.A.'s legendary Laurel Canyon folk scene. "We're not too far from the canyon," he notes, pointing past the heads of the last row of the audience. "It's right across the freeway."
Throughout his career, Beck has written songs that traverse both L.A.'s glamorous myths and its gritty realities — the palm trees, and the rats that live inside them. He seems especially delighted to play such quintessentially L.A. songs as "Qué Onda Guero," with its references to Alvarado Street and Cap n' Cork Market in Los Feliz, for a relatively intimate hometown crowd.
"We have a lot of friends here tonight," he says early in the show. "I should've just had a barbecue at my house."
It's good to see Beck in such high spirits. After a nearly two-decade run as one of his generation's most prolific artists, he grew uncharacteristically taciturn following the 2008 release of Modern Guilt, his still-underrated collaboration with producer Danger Mouse. At the time, he later revealed, a chronic back injury had left him virtually incapable of performing or playing guitar. After six years of relative silence, interrupted only by such curios as track-by-track covers of classic albums and an entire set of songs released only as sheet music, he returned in 2014 with the beautiful but bleak Morning Phase, a sort of emotional sequel to his 2002 masterpiece Sea Change that seemed to herald not so much a return to form as a new, more mature chapter in his storied career.
But now, three years later, we get Colors, the most unabashedly pop album Beck has ever released. With all its shiny surfaces, power-pop guitar chords and nods to the digitized boom of contemporary hip-hop, it's tempting to view Colors as a deliberate pivot away from the soul-searching seriousness of Morning Phase, and even more tempting to read it as some kind of expectation-lowering response to that album's surprise win for Album of the Year at the 2015 Grammys.
But the actual history of Colors doesn't fit this narrative. Beck began work on the album as far back as 2013, as a kind of uptempo, candy-colored complement to Morning Phase's more muted tones. Since its inception, Colors seems to have become mainly a pleasant excuse for Beck to work with his longtime collaborator and former touring keyboardist Greg Kurstin, whose burgeoning career as a mainstream pop producer and songwriter (his credits during the making of Colors include Adele's "Hello" and Sia's "Chandelier") clearly rubbed off on the sessions. It was probably also a joy for Beck, healthy again for the first time in years, to whale away at the simple, catchy chords of songs like "Dreams," the Colors lead single that was released more than two years ago. He certainly attacked them with gleeful gusto last night.
Though it has its moments — especially "Dreams," arguably the most entertaining Beck single since "Girl" — it's fair to say that Colors isn't its creator's best work. Kurstin's pop formulas too often overwhelm Beck's more oblique songwriting instincts; the chorus to "Up All Night" sounds less like Beck and more like an awkward hybrid of Ellie Goulding and Foster the People. Other tracks like the hip-hop–influenced "Wow" are more recognizably Beck-ian, but somehow ersatz, like he's copying his younger self, especially when he sing-speaks such trademark jive talk as "With my pulse on the animal jewels/Of the rules that you choose to use to get loose/With the luminous moves." (The Beck of Odelay, I like to think, would have changed that last line to "Like a luminous moose.") It's fun to hear him having fun, but for an album that took nearly four years to make, Colors is surprisingly slight, with few of the enjoyably ramshackle, bricolage qualities of his best work.
As a vehicle for helping Beck get his mojo back, however, Colors is just what he and his fans have needed for years. With a raucous seven-piece backing band, anchored by power-pop legends Jason Falkner on guitar and Roger Joseph Manning Jr. on keyboards, Beck tears through lively versions of both classics ("Devils Haircut") and deep cuts ("Soul of a Man," a grungy blues-rock rave-up off Modern Guilt) with youthful enthusiasm, occasionally looking and sounding just like the skinny kid whose folk-rap fusions and pretty-fly-for-a-white-guy dance moves made him an alt-rock icon in the '90s. Even tracks off Sea Change and Morning Phase — especially "Paper Tiger," with Falkner puncturing the song's moody atmosphere with blasts of acid-rock guitar — take on new life, as a seemingly reinvigorated Beck strings together a career-spanning set that, for all his many detours into disparate sounds and styles, feels surprisingly cohesive.
Above all, Beck makes a convincing case that, with the recent passing of Tom Petty (whose "American Girl" Falkner led the band through during a freewheeling medley of encore covers), he has assumed the mantle of L.A.'s rock poet laureate. Throughout the set, in ways both overt (name-checking Zankou Chicken and the Glendale Galleria during eternal crowd-pleaser "Debra") and oblique (the lyric "This town is crazy/Nobody cares," from "Lost Cause"), Beck's songs and stage banter paint a picture of Los Angeles in all its beauty and absurdity. His lyrics, even at their silliest — especially at their silliest ("I'm mixing business with leather") — capture our city in a way no other active songwriter this side of Kendrick Lamar can touch.
That's another way in which Colors doesn't quite measure up to the rest of Beck's catalog; too many of its lyrics are the kind of vague personal aphorisms that plague much of today's pop songwriting. "I'll find you and go right through the walls we made/I see you, I need you every day," from Colors' title track, is a far cry from the swap-meet beat poetry of, "Heads are hanging from the garbageman trees/Mouthwash, jukebox, gasoline" from "Devils Haircut." Hopefully when he sings, "Don't forget where you came from" on "Wow," he's singing to himself.
"Every show is different," he tells the crowd at one point. "I'm feeling a little Hollywood grime tonight." When Beck's feeling that way, it's great to have him back.
Set list below.
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Think I'm in Love
The New Pollution
Qué Onda Guero
Go It Alone
Soul of a Man
Heart Is a Drum
Up All Night
Medley: Where It's At / Good Times / Miss You / American Girl / Once in a Lifetime / Takin' It to the Streets / In the Air Tonight / One Foot in the Grave / Debra