ALBUMS: Beck Launches a New Chapter
Mr. Hansen finds room to breathe on his 14th album Hyperspace
★★★ 1/2 (3.5/5 stars)
Listeners never quite know what they’re going to get with a new Beck album.
It could lean into folk, like 2014’s Grammy Award-winning Morning Phase; it might skew pop, like 2017’s Colors; it could go back to the lo-fi Mellow Gold beginnings that brought us “Loser” in 1994. All listeners really know is that a Beck project will do something new or unexpected—and that’s what makes it so fun.
We last left Beck in 2017, when the bubbly Colors whirled listeners 180 degrees away from the quiet calm that Morning Phase brought through songs like “Morning” and “Say Goodbye.” If Morning Phase was about embracing maturity and finding acceptance, Colors was an energetic leap back into a life lived fully and without hesitation, coming across quite literally in songs like “I’m So Free.”
Two years later, Beck has just released his 14th album Hyperspace on Capitol Records, a project he co-produced with Pharrell Williams, who has long been on the singer’s collaborative wish list since Midnight Vultures.
Hyperspace starts with the short “Hyperlife,” a 97-second-long piece that serves as a Colors palate cleanser while setting the tone for what’s to come. Beck then dives into “Uneventful Days,” one of the album’s strongest tracks that features a pulsating rhythm beneath lyrics documenting the “never-ending days, never-ending nights” plaguing a narrator struggling to find meaning after loss. It’s a theme that bleeds through the album, popping up in “Die Waiting” as Beck promises “I don’t care what I have to do / Know that I’m gonna wait on you” and in “Dark Places” as he considers how shadows introduced by love lost bring a whole new level of loneliness into life. Along the way, singer Sky Ferreira stops by to offer vocal assistance in “Die Waiting” and Coldplay’s Chris Martin does the same on “Stratosphere.” In addition to his role as co-producer, Pharrell pops in throughout the album on keys, drums and select vocals.
If the lyrical theme of the album is learning to endure the hurt that comes after loss, the music is about Beck’s continuing evolution as a songwriter. As one would expect of any artist with a lengthy career, elements of Beck’s past work come into play, his two most recent albums seemingly top of mind. Hyperspace explores a pop tinge without going too deep into the genre, leaving an opening for listeners who like Beck but don’t necessarily love his pop dalliances. While Colors occasionally settled for embracing lighthearted songs with questionable substance, Hyperspace reels in those whims, enabling Beck to play loose between styles without straying too far in any one direction.
With Pharrell keeping a watchful eye over the process, Hyperspace feels like a natural progression for Beck. From the structure of the album to the way the energy levels in each song are modulated, it feels like Beck has a loose control over the process: enough where he’s guiding it but not too much where he’s strangling his own creativity. That said, the album isn’t without its fumbles. The ’80s prog-rock elements on “Chemical” deliver the vibe promised by the colorful album artwork but fall short when the lyrics succumb to predictability (“Love is a chemical / I’m so high”), an issue that also appears in the otherwise sweet lyrics in “Die Waiting.” And while the prominence of the slide guitar and harmonica on “Saw Lightning” are welcome appearances so early on the album, the pacing and instrumentation of the song are an almost jarring break from the rest of Hyperspace. It’s a fun Beck-Pharrell collaboration and worth having around, but there’s something about it that doesn’t seem to fit with the other 10 tracks.
Quibbles aside, Hyperspace delivers a lot of what Beck fans want in a new album. It’s spacious, experimental and it adds value to a catalog already brimming with thoughtful intent. After starting strong with the scene-setting “Hyperlife” and “Uneventful Days,” Hyperspace also ends with a punch in “Everlasting Nothing,” a five-minute track that progresses confidently, taking its time to carve a space for the carefully-crafted tale of perseverance with which Beck wants to end the album. It’s an effective end for Beck’s latest chapter, a promise that resilience has its rewards even when the shadows are at their longest. “In your time you’ll find something / In the everlasting nothing,” he sings before letting the song fade out. Beck may be uncertain of where exactly he’s going, but he seems determined to find meaning in the journey.
VIDEO: Beck “Uneventful Days”
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