Right now, it feels as though Beck needs the current musical scenes a lot more than they need him. As far as being a boundary-pushing, zeitgeist-smashing indie-rock maverick has gotten him, there’s only so many boundaries to push and pieces of the zeitgeist to smash, and thus to see Beck moving towards more recognisable modernity to varying degrees of severity in recent years has led to albums that haven’t exactly stayed prevalent. Just look at 2017’s Colors, an album that wasn’t terrible, but for what was ultimately branded as Beck’s party album with big-name producers at the helm to facilitate such a mood, it’s generally fizzled out in the way those albums tend to. And yet, it clearly picked up enough momentum to keep him chugging along, and while the pick-and-choose approach to album creation has clearly been retained between releases, Hyperspace on principle feels like the sort of thing that doesn’t have much of a chance of landing, especially in 2019. If a conclusive move towards pop and electronic music is what’s needed to keep moving, there’s a certain lack of connective tissue that comes with making almost the whole thing as a collaboration with Pharrell of all people, and while there’s no denying his clout as a producer, it makes the end goal of Hyperspace feel incredibly blurred. It’s certainly there, but the chances that Beck’s unpredictability as an artist has gotten the best of him isn’t to be ruled out either.
But even after multiple listens, it remains difficult to parse out what it really is. If nothing else, Hyperspace is far from the disaster it could’ve been, but it presents an area of Beck’s skill set that has a distinct lack of polish and seasoning, and for what could possibly be a realtime refinement of such skills, it’s not hard to see how this isn’t where he shines the brightest. And yet, it can’t be denied that when Hyperspace sticks the landing, there’s definitely creative fertility, and refining that into a more defiant pop package as seen on something like Midnite Vultures could potentially make for another cool avenue that, especially in the past, Beck has been rather proficient at finding. As it stands now, this is a pretty rough-around-the-edges jumping-off point, but with enough quality to it to result in a net positive all the same.
It’s the instrumentation and production that needs to be given the most light first as well, and how Pharrell’s efforts behind the recording desk simultaneously helps and hinders the direction Hyperspace aims for. Sonically, it’s far more reliant on dreamier R&B and hip-hop textures, but leaning towards a highly telegraphed sense of minimalism that’s far more in Pharrell’s wheelhouse than Beck’s. When that hits, there are moments on Hyperspace that benefit from it enormously, swirling across more rich and colourful tableaux like on Die Waiting, or really sinking into a cloudier, moodier hip-hop atmosphere fantastically on See Through. The sense of lucidity created is one that Beck’s deeper, more drawling tones are a good fit for, but it simultaneously makes the occasional moment of sharper vibrancy hit all the harder, like the clear callbacks to Loser with the harmonica and banjo twangs to punctuate Saw Lightning’s already sweltering pace, or the climaxing hip-hop build that sees Beck go head to head with Terrell Hines on the title track. There’s a lot of clarity brought that feels incredibly well-realised, but that does only work to a point, namely when the line between lucid and meandering feels crossed a bit too much, and the cushions of synths that form the majority of the album’s back half are relied on too much as the sole foundation. It’s the clearest highlight of how limiting this mould is for Beck; a track like Chemical can stand as a one-off instance for being exceptionally pretty in its composition and production, but when that idea seems to just be reused on Stratosphere and Dark Places – or transposed for an acoustic closer with Everlasting Nothing – it’s unnecessarily weighed down by a lack of drive that’s avoidable, but not heeded. Stripping back a clearer pop dynamic only exposes how openly flawed this approach is for Beck, and while there’s enough competent artistry to prevent it from being awful, there’s a lack of engagement that’s palpable in how draining it is.
But at the same time, when it’s there to exist as a boon for the aforementioned sense of lucidity – or, as has been previously iterated, the comedown to Colors’ party – it’s hard to begrudge its existence, as it does functionally work in the way it’s supposed to. It’s just that Beck can do a lot more with that subject matter as shown on this very album, where individual elements do connect in a more workable fashion. There’s a sense of ennui that can be felt in Uneventful Days, as can the yearning on Die Waiting that eventually morphs into regret on See Through, and the elemental forces that drive Saw Lightning serve as a necessarily kinetic wake-up call. But beyond that, when things get more vague and the album begins to peter out, the pitfalls that often come with material as wide-reaching become all the clearer, and Hyperspace struggles to really stay out of them. Maybe that’s the point, and the tailing off is leading up to something more to come next time, but for what this is now, it’s not all that satisfying, and really makes Hyperspace only worth paying attention to to a certain extent.
Even then though, with expectations being as low as they were, to have Hyperspace latch itself to really any sufficient amount of quality could be classed as a win, and the fact that it’s generally enjoyable when it does connect only solidifies that notion. If nothing else, it’s exactly the sort of artistic pivot one would expect from Beck, namely throwing caution to the wind and trying something basically for the hell of it. And on the whole, despite gaping shortcomings that are basically unable to be rectified here, this is a decent album that does what it wants to do well. It’s far from a classic or even likely to be all that memorable beyond the initial hit, but that hit does have moments of real quality, and that’s better than nothing.
For fans of: TV On The Radio, Danger Mouse, LCD Soundsystem
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Hyperspace’ by Beck is out now on Capitol Records.