Beck’s Colors: Songs in the Key of Joy

It’s not unheard of for me to cry while jogging. Something about the endorphins and just the right track mixed with a bit of exhaustion can prove to be an intoxicating concoction. If you find me nearing the end of a five-mile trek, just drive by blaring the closing minutes of Sigur Ros’ “Glosoli,” and you are sure to get me all puffy-eyed.

Recently I went running after a particularly good Sunday at church. So many things had clicked that day. I was feeling a whole range of emotions, from gratefulness to surprise to abiding pride in the members of my congregation. As I ran, I was listening to Beck’s new album, Colors, trying to figure out what to write about it.

I’m not sure exactly what happened. Maybe it was the way Midnite Vultures-era distortion scissored through the bridge of “Dreams.” Or maybe it was the pan flute synthesizer on the title track. Maybe it was the Elliott Smith circa 2000 jangly piano of “Dear Life.” Maybe it was the backbone of “No Distraction,” clearly inspired by Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc.” Or maybe it was the way Beck’s guitar revved up before the chorus of “I’m So Free.” Possibly, it was just the sheer silliness of a song titled “Wow.” Whatever it was, I was seriously choking up.

In that moment, I realized that Colors is not an album meant to be hyper-analyzed. It’s a project to be experienced. It’s like a modern art piece, an abstraction. Colors is not complex in one sense because Beck is specifically trying to achieve a feeling. In an Exclaim interview he said, “I just want to make something that, when you hear it, it just makes you happy.”

The single “Wow” is a perfect example. Essentially, it’s three notes on a synth with a skeleton 808 beat. But when Beck croons, “Giddy up, giddy up...” I’m ready to drop whatever I’m doing and break out my worst white boy dance moves. There is no formula for generating a feeling. An artist has to discover how very simple parts fit together to move his listeners on an emotional level.

In the opening title track, Beck confronts us with this provocative question: “All the colors, see the colors / Feel the colors / Tell me, do you feel alive?” Not are you alive, but do you feel alive? Are you seeing the colors? Are you just living life, or are you experiencing it with all of its emotional depth and beauty? The tracks of Colors are like the splashes of vibrant blue and yellow of the album’s cover art, meant to help us feel alive.

Why is it that an artist can lay different sound frequencies over one another in a specific pattern and suddenly elicit joyful precipitation from my tear glands? Why does a twinkling star sound effect pushed through heavy reverb instantly make life feel a little less heavy? Why do I want to shout a nonsense lyric like, “You can hear me / From Topeka to Belize now”? It’s a mystery. And yet Beck achieved all of these feelings this past Sunday afternoon.

“It just clicked.” That’s what we say when we can’t explain how everything came together so perfectly. Sometimes we call it an epiphany. The word comes from a Greek root that means “a sudden appearing.” Although Colors is not complex on a lyrical or musical level, it is complex on the abstract level. It manages to create the feeling that we get in moments like this past Sunday afternoon. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we can sense life … just clicking.

The happiness of Beck’s Colors is richer for believers because we know the reason that our lives come together. These epiphanies are moments where the colors painted by the Divine Hand suddenly appear in beautifully joyful hues. We feel the colors as something immensely complex—the sovereign plan of the Almighty—clicks together in a sheer moment of emotional joy.

We experience this joy in different ways throughout the seasons of life. Sometimes joy comes “smooth like a tidal wave” as we ride the astounding confluence of God’s plan. Those are the days when we whistle along to the beat of his grace: “It’s like, wow!” Sometimes all we can manage to say is, “Dear life, I’m holding on...” In those moments, we try our best to count it all joy, because even trials are the fingers of God shaping us into his likeness. Ultimately, joy is the abiding conviction through triumph and trial that this much is true: all things are working together for good to those who love God. That’s the key that Colors is written in—the key of joy.

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