Beck Hansen as the chameleon. It’s one of the most consistent pigeonholes lobbed out by the music press and one that has long offered the clichéd comparison to David Bowie as its accomplice. It’s the easy response to a musician who doesn’t like to sit still, and an excuse for those writing off his failures as only necessary misses. It’s what brought about the near universal coupling of 2014’s Morning Phase to 2002’s Sea Change as something more than just stylistic similarity. It’s what is currently yielding comparisons between Beck’s newest album Hyperspace and 2017’s Colors. In reality, those styles are pretty distinct, but what is apparent is that on his last few albums Beck has lost that boundary-pushing spark he once trailblazed and has left the door open as to whether these really are just misses on an otherwise near perfect track record.
In the last month, Beck has flooded the news cycle, from his denunciation of scientology to his speculation of the damage done to his masters during the 2008 Universal Studios fire – doing all he can to drum up clicks and hashtags in the afterglow of Hyperspace’s release. Those headlines are pretty easy to explain away, Beck’s retcon of his Scientology past may be a response to his February divorce from Marissa Ribisi, the mother of his children and notable scientologist. As for if Beck’s original master recordings and unreleased albums were actually destroyed in that Universal fire, he recently had to walk-back his comments after getting in trouble with his management. Similar to his ever evolving genre-hopping, his mythos has always been consistently in flux – even when he is just trying to get some press for his work.
Growing up in an impoverished area of L.A., Beck spent his nights sleeping under his dining room table and getting picked on as the only white kid in his school. Growing up amongst his father, an arranger and composer, the growing hip hop community around him and his few folkie friends, Beck ended up dropping out after junior high and moving to New York City. He would break onto the scene as a leading figure in the burgeoning anti-folk movement before going on to release Mellow Gold and its top ten hit “Loser” in 1994. Since then he has maintained his cultural ubiquity, releasing some of the best albums of the 90s in Odelay (1996) and Midnite Vultures (1999), and avoiding a role as a legacy act in the 2000s with the commercially popular Guero (2005) and Sea Change (2002).
By the 2010s he had reserved a niche amongst his peers as one of the more consistent and respected musicians still recording. Morning Phase was one of the most hotly anticipated albums of 2014 and while only a solid effort, it went on to win the Album of the Year Grammy, beating out the near shoo-in Beyoncé’s self-titled behemoth. After that surprise win, Beck has seemingly flatlined, creating some of the most maligned music of his career and alienating much of his core following that had stuck around for nearly two decades. After the long gestation of his follow-up Colors, many eagerly anticipated hearing what a Beck-pop album would sound like. But the results were mixed, with Greg Kurstin’s production not doing much to salvage the few genuinely decent songs on that album.
This time around it’s Pharrell Williams as Beck’s man behind the boards, and overall he is a little more successful in creating the specific aesthetic that Beck is looking for. Although sufficiently less upbeat than Colors, Hyperspace is not an introspective downer – instead each track has at least a bit of the hi-fidelity hypnogogia that has become so popular in our 80s-centric culture. The results of that collaboration are actually pretty strong. One of the better songs here, “Uneventful Days”, is saturated in synths and vocal effects with crisp and layered production and a surprisingly strong melody.
Interestingly, the worst song on Hyperspace is also the biggest outlier from the formula. “Saw Lightning”, the lead single, feels like a throw away single, one that would be released on a greatest hits album or maybe two years between projects just to keep the public interested. It is obtrusive and obnoxious and with its slide guitar and harmonica feels alien on an album this space-oriented.
Luckily the majority of Hyperspace maintains the somewhat tongue-in-cheek 80s synth worship, leaning into it here and there but never for the sake of the song’s quality. “Die Waiting” seems like one of the more low-key holdovers from Colors, apart from a few shimmering 80s pastiches. This is Beck at his most idealistic and schmaltzy. The chorus is catchy enough to stick in your head but the words feel empty and saccharine, as if Beck was simply covering an Ed Sheeran song. However, the more pop-oriented Beck does find more luck on the down-tempo “See Through”. While the verses simply help to bind the song to the album’s decor, the chorus could genuinely be found on a pretty good trap song and seems to present Beck at his most forward thinking in years. The title track here brings together an amalgamation of styles all rolling over the same synthy soundscape. It presents Beck’s attempts to be both hammy and meditative, the best and worst of his tendencies on Hyperspace. It’s not as overtly sacrilegious as it could be, but it is nevertheless a missed opportunity.
Throughout the album it seems that the atmosphere is really what’s carrying the weight and on many of these cuts that’s likely the case, but on “Stratosphere”, the best track here, Beck offers a genuinely moving and catchy hook over his intricate guitar playing and the swelling synths that harken back to some of the most resonant moments on Sea Change. On the other hand, towards the end of the record we hear “Star”, probably the most “Beck” song here. With its vaguely hip hop drum beat and quick sputtering delivery, it may be nostalgic for some, but still feels out of place on this retro album. The moments where Hyperspace feels out of sync creep up a few more times than they probably should and when the production and aesthetic are so clearly intertwined, it’s hard to maintain the singular experience you can tell the artist is hoping for.
There’s no doubt that Beck likes to switch up what he’s doing occasionally, and it’s no surprise why, with artists like Mac DeMarco and Grimes being heavily criticised for trying to slightly traverse even the same genre, it must be liberating for someone like Beck to be able to do pretty much whatever he wants and pull in repeat listeners. Hyperspace has a good idea too, and pulls off the skeleton of that idea well enough. The problem here is that the songs themselves feel few and far between. While Beck’s knack for melody and conceptual ingenuity come in handy, it’s no doubt that over the last few years he’s been running out of steam. Every artist slips up occasionally; it’s just harder when it comes from Beck.