‘Hyperspace’ Review: Beck Teams Up With Pharrell Williams and Wanders Freely
Beck is the epitome of the eclectic artist whose restless creativity necessitates continual shapeshifting. For two and a half decades, he’s balanced grand ambitions with deadpan cool, dipping haphazardly in and out of wildly divergent genres while somehow maintaining a distinctive voice. Acoustic folk stylings have given way to funk abstractions and world music explorations, and come full circle. The last release, 2017’s “Colors,” found him embracing trap percussion and pop prowess. This time around, Beck has joined forces with none other than the illustrious Pharrell Williams, who contributed to seven of the eleven tracks that make up the new album, “Hyperspace.” The title is lifted from a feature in the 1979 video game “Asteroids,” which allowed players in danger to hit a button and be instantly transported to a safer place. The new songs accordingly shuttle between the very distinct sonic spheres of Beck’s and Pharell’s sound palettes and proclivities. Each track seems to exist somewhere in the ether, making for an altogether unique sound, and an exciting new direction.
The brief introductory track “Hyperlife” begins with a swirl of emergent sound that bend out of tune and blend into a cloudy, vaporwave-ey haze. In seconds, the album title is fitting, and it’s clear this is going to be a trippy affair. Beck’s voice hovers over the ethereal backdrop as he sings, “I just want to feel more and more / With you,” and it’s on to the feelings. “Uneventful Days” follows, and you can instantly hear the contribution of Williams. While there is a surfeit of detail in all the songs, the overall production aesthetic is largely a decidedly minimal one, bearing the trademark traits that Williams has steadily flaunted since his Neptunes days. This song abounds with colorful textures, tones burnt and bent at the edges, locked into a sprightly, buoyant beat with bits of sharp, abrasive sound candy peppered in. The silly pop affectations the Beck adopts in the bridge are in line with the particular disaffected cool that he has represented since at least as early as “Loser,” effortlessly channeled into the latest of its innumerable forms. The busy, exhilarating beat is pointed and nebulous simultaneously, and the blurring of states seems to vaguely mirror the lyrics “Never-ending days, never-ending nights.”
“Saw Lightning,” featured in the ad campaign for Beats by Dr. Dre Powerbeats, is an absolute riot, easily the finest showcase of the chemistry between Beck and Pharrell. A ramshackle, ringing twang sets off a madcap hodgepodge to a crisp breakbeat, and Beck croons away in a crazed, soulful falsetto. As he as dons lazy blues affectations, seconded by down-home harmonica, Pharrell hoots, howls, and chimes in intermittently, as the beat takes on acid tones with tuned percussion shifting timbres. It’s a wild ride to say the least, fully consistent with its vivid title, replete with a memorable melodic refrain of “Lord won’t you take me and lead me to the light.” “Die Waiting” repurposes the haze teased in the intro, and channels the restless energy of “Saw Lightning” into a digestible, chill wave-informed pop song. It’s a beat-centered exercise, quite like “Wow” from “Colors” in that respect, but with sparkling synth arpeggios, raw, gritty synth bass, and choir backing vocals with contributions from Sky Ferreira. Lyrics like “I don’t care what I have to do / You know that I’m gonna wait on you” bear a simplicity of sentiment fitting for the breezy singalong.
On “Chemical,” woozy synths and acoustic guitar strumming are fit to a finger-snapping beat with stuttering trap snares and hi hats, making for a punchy tune that accrues momentum until the the beat suddenly dissolves into a mist, then builds again into minimal stomp with cool keys, crisp snaps, and the jammiest type of tongue-in-cheek guitar licks. Again, Beck keeps the lyrics expressively simplistic, repeating, “I’m so high / And love is a chemical.” “See Through” is a sonic standout, with aquatic textures underscoring its title, and an insistent drum track, high in the mix that gives it a kitsch, ‘90s loungey feel — think Buddha Bar. There are slight, perfectly subtle Auto-tune tweaks, and a dim lit, hypnotic groove with the hipster irony ostensibly turned up. Much of the new album sounds as if designed to soundtrack the type of ‘70s television program spoofs that run on Adult Swim. This very specific aesthetic gets more pronounced and takes on various forms as the record continues. By the point the title track comes around, there’s a distinct, retro-futurist feel. Beck sings over ambient washes and unrelenting snares, reviving the lyrics and melody of the opening track, and fleshing them out further, until a midsong indulgent outpouring of designedly tacky, over-produced rap that strikes as trash for connoisseurs. The whole act is a massive, elaborate, neon joke, a helium laser show spectacle.
Coldplay’s Chris Martin contributes backing vocals to “Stratosphere,” although you can hardly tell. Tastefully subtle, it’s the very opposite of a mainstream hip-hop “feature.” Beck churns out metaphysical vagaries over a new age-ey indie instrumental that sounds as if it has been slowed down ever so slightly, its readily registering melodies just lagging, messing with your perception of time and space. “Dark Place” follows like a natural extension, with synths getting more unabashedly outlandish, as Beck sings, “Time moves on and on / Love, it goes.” At one point, the beat draws to a halt, and he repeats, “It’s two in the morning” like the stuff of revelation, as if anything can be projected onto its meaning. What time is it elsewhere? Can it still be two in the morning by the next time he repeats it. If this all seems a bit silly, it’s well in the nature of the project and the mood that it conjures. There are ornate vocal arrangements atop the skeletal template, along with clipped vocal samples and mutating, warbling, psychedelic sounds. By the end, Beck is bleating, “On and on and on and on,” having transcended from the momentary to the eternal.
The most melodically infectious track of the record is “Star,” which strikes as if all the elements teased so far have suddenly fallen perfectly into place, and given rise to a grand gestalt. Delightfully vintage, detuned tones and distorted blurts guide an unwieldy beat, and Beck’s falsetto vocal beams brightly. A world of varied musical instincts has been allowed to take free reign and coalesce into sonic marvels, getting more hypnotic yet, when outrageously shaped wah-wah synth shapes pop up and nudge you forward. Finally, “Everlasting” stikes a judicious balance between acoustics and electronics with more camp sound art, echoing snares, impassioned crooning, classic rock melodies, and a variety of meshing textures. There’s a sense of serenity and cool composure, at once grounded and star-gazing, as Beck sings, “Still I try to get back home / In the everlasting nothing,” as melismatic diva vocals reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” soar to heights and gently fade out.
There are few artists on this scale who act on whims with such alacrity. You never know what you’re going to get with a Beck album. Every new record is sure to alienate a certain subset of the artist’s fanbase, and at this point in Beck’s career, his most avid fans are mainly those who enjoy the gamble that each new release entails, and the surprises that it presents. That said, “Hyperspace” is both the most adventurous and most cohesive album Beck has released in years. Recent records have all had plenty moments of genius, but seemed somewhat patchy, to varying degrees. Beck’s collaboration with Pharell is a match made in, well, hyperspace — a blending of minimalist and maximalist tendencies into a surreal pop extravaganza.
“Hyperspace” is available Nov. 22 on Apple Music.