November 25, 2019

Beck has spent much of his career embodying the genre-crushing spirit of the early-’90s anti-folk and art-pop movements. No matter the level of critical or commercial success, the LA musician has generally thrown the sonic signature of his previous record in the bin to venture into unmarked territory.

Beck’s hunger for reinvention has receded on a few occasions as he’s sought to reoccupy the terrain of a celebrated release. Most notably, 2005’s Guero channelled the irreverent sampledelia of his 1996 masterwork, Odelay, and 2014’s Morning Phase returned to the lush, Gainsbourg-inspired acoustics of 2002’s Sea Change. So where does Hyperspace fit in? In an abstract sense, the album’s marriage of hip hop production and rapped vocals with folky acoustics resembles Odelay. Likewise, where Odelay employed Beastie Boys production team the Dust Brothers, Hyperspace pairs Beck with pop-rap producer du jour, Pharrell Williams. But the finished product scarcely resembles either Odelay or Guero and there’s no on-the-money analogue in the Beck oeuvre.

Like 2017’s Colors, Hyperspace shows a fondness for various sonic hallmarks of the 2010s. It’s littered with catchy melodies and sensual production that encourages you to observe the summer sunset in a horizontal position. However, a sort of melancholy dreaminess pervades the record, sustained by its hovering, synth-lined tonal palette.

Much of the tracklist moves at a mid-tempo pace and Beck’s lyrics are evocative of a wistful gaze. Intro track ‘Hyperlife’ begins with the lines, “Faster, farther, longer, harder / I just want more and more,” suggesting the singer’s lust for life is peaking, but in reality, Hyperspace is more closely tied to themes of escape and grudgingly moving on.

Beck split with his wife of nearly 15 years in early 2019 and while it seems uncouth to speculate about the singer’s personal life, allusions to a break-up aren’t hard to find. “Caught up in these never-ending battle lines,” sings Beck over the nimble electronics of ‘Uneventful Days.’ The song’s title drips with irony as Beck pines for a reduction in activity. “Everything has changed, nothing here feels right.”

‘Chemical’ – which joins singer-songwriter acoustic guitars with trap cadence and inserts finger snaps in place of a snare drum – includes this particularly despondent triad: “A sudden change in everything / Don’t know what I would feel when I’m free / Found a love, just a fantasy.”

‘See-Through’ welcomes back Colors producer Greg Kurstin, but gone are that record’s party-oriented eccentricities. By contrast, the presentation is incredibly candid, even if Beck’s voice intermittently submits to a dousing of Auto-Tune. The line, “I feel so ugly when you see through me,” hits home, speaking to the guilt that arises from betraying a loved one.

The album’s two weakest tracks appear side by side early in the piece. ‘Saw Lightning’ is the closest we get to an Odelay re-tread, featuring slide guitar and a frenetic marching drum loop. Midi bass, piano, harmonica and a load of inconsequential imagery are piled on top. It feels stuffy and not particularly purposive. ‘Die Waiting’ hews closer to Hyperspace’s prevailing neon tint, but the Cole M.G.N. production comes off like an attempt at landing commercial radio play.

Elsewhere, the 2019 influences are introduced with relative aplomb. Shades of mumble rap, trap and James Blake’s downtempo soul all rear their heads, often within the same song. The title track includes additional vocals from Georgian MC, Terrell Hines, while Beck’s own flow on ‘Chemical’ adds some urgency to a record that tends to make its statements in a circuitous manner.

The predominance of digital drum programming, sci-fi synth pads and Auto-Tune will disappoint listeners eager to relive the more conventional indie-rock end of Beck’s catalogue. Though, there’s more to Hyperspace’s embrace of contemporary sounds than just a mid-life solicitation for relevance. Beck’s partnership with Williams, as well as Kurstin, M.G.N. and Paul Epworth for one song each, allows him to say goodbye to a fulfilling past without losing sight of what’s filled his life – and career– with purpose.

‘Hyperspace’ by Beck is out now.