When’s the last time you were surprised by a Beck album? Perhaps you were caught off guard when Morning Phase beat out Beyoncé at the Grammys; maybe you even registered some mild bewilderment at how his single “Up All Night” earwormed its way into your brain, more than twenty years after “Loser” did the same. But really. When is the last time you listened to a new Beck album and were genuinely surprised by what you heard—not by meta narrative, but by the music itself?
It is a rigorous standard by which to measure current day Beck output, yet it’s a standard demanded by his auspicious catalog. From the beginning, he was a prankster and a provocateur, a child of postmodernism whose music gleefully disassembled and rearranged tropes and trappings culled from decades of pop culture. Each new Beck album felt like a counteraction to the one that came before it. Each felt bracing and fresh. Or at least, they did until they didn’t, perhaps sometime around 2005’s classicist move Guero.
By and large, the albums Beck’s released since then have traded a discoverer’s zeal for a craftsman’s sophistication and assurance. They are not especially startling albums, but they are generally quite good, savvy in their arrangements, songwriting, and production choices. The same is true of Hyperspace, an album that frequently, faintly recalls Beck’s legacy records while still sounding like something that stands on its own.
Whether it will surprise you depends on how shocking you find the idea of a Beck-Pharrell Williams team-up; Williams is credited as a co-producer, and his minimalist aesthetic looms over the whole project. The best way to describe Hyperspace is to say that it’s another Beck album that plays fast-and-loose with genre and form, blurring the margins between established sounds in a way not too dissimilar to Odelay or Midnite Vultures; the difference is how streamlined it feels, how sleek and how nimble. It’s as though Beck’s porous imagination and roaming curiosity has been excavated from under all that ’90s-vintage Dust Brothers maximalism. Just listen to “Saw Lightning,” which recreates Beck’s vaunted hip-hop/blues vibe with little more than staccato drum beats, acoustic guitar twang, and a few high-and-lonesome harmonica moans.
Beck has always impressed in his ability to unite classicist songwriting with contemporary trends, never sounding like he’s haplessly trying to pay catch-up. On “Uneventful Days,” Williams leads him through a thicket of gleaming EDM synths and trap beats, and who knows how hard the two of them worked to make the final product sound so organic and easy? Much of Hyperspace follows a familiar aesthetic, one that’s equally informed by percolating drum loops and gauzy layers of featherweight keyboard effects. If there’s any fault to the approach, it’s that the tracks are so wispy they sometimes sound like they could float away, making the acoustic grounding of “Dark Places” a welcome anchor.
Beneath such blissfully weightless productions there are some dark lyrics, a lot of them sounding like they have mortality on the brain; maybe one way to hear Hyperspace is as an amalgam of Colors’ superficial pleasures with Modern Guilt’s dark implications. In other words, it’s not exactly a Beck album without precedent; but maybe at this point, that’s asking too much. It is a Beck album that’s distinguished from the ones that came before it, and at every turn it evinces a singer, songwriter, and record-maker who’s unerring in his craft—by now, of course, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.