A two-way act with one, inevitable leader
After stunning his indie contemporaries with his Grammy-winning 2017 album, Colors, Beck outstepped his low-key appeal by sheer success. His next approach could have easily receded into the repertoire he’s already built, but Hyperspace goes the other way, opening up a whole new genre for him to stick his fingers into. Beck innovates his own sound with this release, and more so, stays on pace with an industry that so many others have decided to avoid. It’s a wicked style that he advocates, somewhere between the acoustic writing of his earlier days and a sticky, new-wave energy – an all-together eclectic pop realm.
The record was co-produced by Pharrell Williams, which isn’t of much surprise when you listen to the processing behind these tracks. They’re as far from the ‘Beck’ that we’ve come to expect than they ever could be, and maybe that’s a good thing, but then who’s to claim the success of it? It’s a finicky one, and when you dive down to the crux of it, any co-production as varied as this will always pull up a two-way act, with one inevitable leader behind it all. If this really was Beck’s doing, and Williams merely gave him the push, then it’s a wonderfully artistic move, but somehow, it feels like the opposite.
Certain tracks are easier to believe in – “Hyperlife” and “Hyperspace” are testaments to the concept that’s present here – the contemporary sound that gave Beck his name, bringing the record away from the provisional formula it otherwise protracts. It feels like a lot of the composition of these tracks was pushed by experimentation, swooning with rising synths and a tender balance between the electronic and the instrument, where Beck does more than just reinvent his sound, but have fun with it too. He even drops some bars halfway through “Hyperspace,” with a half rap-type monologue, proof of his willingness to break beyond one, singular sound.
Still, Hyperspace rides dangerously close to the commercial side of a breathless genre and slips past the edge more than it should. Tracks like “Die Waiting,” “Saw Lightning” and “See Through” really sacrifice the deliberate melody of Beck’s standpoint tone for an easier writing tip, and while the issue isn’t really with that saturated sound, the record loses credibility because of it. Get to something like “Stratosphere” and the difference is starkly apparent. It’s a standout track, playing seamlessly on ’80s-muffled keys and a Coldplay-esque vocal line that’s both complacent and endless with its delivery. It was actually surprising to me when I later learned that Chris Martin sings backup on the track, maybe because “Stratosphere” sounds like something solely ‘Beck,’ void of the littered production and machine vocals that feature otherwise heavily so.
Good for Beck that he’s built a big name for himself, and has access to top-class producers like Williams. Hyperspace is a good record, and for Beck to change things up in a very relevant way, while still maintaining some semblance of the artist he was, is a great success. Even more so because so many artists today are doing the opposite, such that it’s ironically starting to feel like the safe route. It’s easier to sell off a supposedly ‘alt-track’ than to try and squeeze your way in between the pop giants, and look at how well it has worked for some (Billie Eilish, Twenty One Pilots, Halsey). But we all know that the true forerunners of alternative rock and pop are running on a different field. Though Beck has somehow sidestepped his peers, and maybe he has found a new way into this big, commercial genre by doing so. Or maybe that wasn’t his intention at all. Maybe he’s perfectly happy with the mold he has made for himself, and Hyperspace is simply the extension of that. What matters is that the record has the duality to be both. What you’ve got to decide now is whether that’s a downfall or a success.