The alt-pop icon teams up with Pharrell for a revelatory inner-space journey
Somewhere inside every album Beck has made since Mellow Gold — his 1994 surprise attack of slippery irony and hip-hop bravado — is the solo folk-blues singer caught on that year’s One Foot in the Grave, writing about despair with a surrealist edge while turned toward hope. That is the Beck who jumps out here in “Saw Lightning,” in looping spasms of acoustic, skidding Delta slide guitar.
Most of the song’s apocalypse comes in contemporary kicks. Beck sings of great fire and flooding, praying for rescue in a strident android’s tone — like Skip James in Auto-Tune — and overdubbed layers of galactic doo-wop. Pharrell Williams, Beck’s chief accomplice on Hyperspace, drums in martial-funk time and speed raps like a digital assistant in a rush. But that seesaw of antique blues and modern artifice sums up this album’s perfect storm — the raw fear of time running out and darkness closing in, rendered in pop beats and colors. In songs like “Die Waiting” and “Dark Places” (the titles tell you plenty), Beck combines the exuberant studio mischief of 1996’s Midnite Vultures with the sumptuous introspection of 2002’s Sea Change to eccentric, genuinely compelling effect.
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While Beck started as a lone ranger on the anti-folk circuit, his records are typically collaborative affairs. He shared writing credits on Odelay with the Dust Brothers, his co-producers, and on 2017’s Colors with multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin. Williams is just as embedded on Hyperspace as co-producer, co-writer, and musician on seven tracks. The hip-hop auteur plays the totally Eighties synth sounds that frame the fleeting satisfaction in “Chemical” (“Found a love, just a fantasy/Beautiful and ugly as a night could be”), and it’s a good bet that Williams is responsible for the otherworldly gauze on Beck’s voice in “Uneventful Days,” which is like David Bowie’s Major Tom checking in from distant orbit.
Beck spreads the work around. Kurstin returns for “See Through” (with weirdly playful vocal choreography suggesting a boy band trapped underwater). Adele veteran Paul Epworth and producer Cole M.G.N., who worked on the Colors hit “Wow,” chip in too. But Beck, for all of his vigor for partnership, is a solitary classicist, a singer-songwriter wrestling with the dynamics of desire and emotional commitment. Hyperspace is grounded in that realism. The keyboards in “Chemical” may sound like they’re on loan from Vangelis, but the acoustic jangle and finger-snap percussion bring the song to Earth. “Die Waiting” is starlit folk rock with a campfire-siren cameo by Sky Ferreira, and “Stratosphere” (featuring Coldplay’s Chris Martin) is practically garage rock: rough strumming in a plaintive glow.
In “Everlasting Nothing,” Beck is back in space with Williams. It’s a finale of echo and choir but a blues all the same. “Friends I’ve known/Come and gone…. Still I’ll try/To get back home,” Beck promises like a man with one foot in the grave but the other still on the road to another day.