Speaking to NME recently, Beck revealed that Pharrell asked him to initially work on the new N.E.R.D. record; from there, the two began sharing songs and, soon, a body of work emerged. A full collaboration ensued and ‘Hyperspace’, Beck’s 14th album, was born. Elsewhere, the record sees guest appearances from Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Sky Ferreira, Paul Epworth and Greg Kurstin on what is Beck’s most collaborative work for years.
‘Hyperlife’, the album’s brief but airy opener, sets the tone for the partnership as Pharrell’s minimalist production allows Beck’s fuller vocals to soar over a set of synths that sounds like something straight out of Space Odyssey. “I really tried to be less ambitious on the production on these songs, like to let them be simple and let them breathe,” Beck told NME. “Pharrell is a master minimalist. On production I’m a bit of a maximalist… I’ve really tried to reform myself to let it become more simple.”
The simplicity is marked, and fans of Beck’s fuller, more melancholic folk-rock style (exemplified by albums such as the stunning, career-defining ‘Morning Phase’) might struggle with the minimalistic leap that ‘Hyperspace’ represents. Even fans of his Grammy Award-winning ‘Colors’, which saw Beck venture further into the mainstream with infectious songs like ‘Dear Life’, may find the experimentalism here too stark – especially on the album’s first half.
But Beck is the master of unpredictability and has, since his debut, experimented with all manner of styles, including lo-fi, rock, funk, pop and folk. Here, he pushes that unpredictability to its very limit – and sometimes, the songs break.
The synth-led ‘Uneventful Days’ and ‘Die Waiting’ could easily soundtrack Stranger Things. Both are an effective bridge between the worlds of ‘Colors’ and ‘Hyperspace’ – yet, while spacious in sound, they’re light on melody and lacking in Beck’s trademarks hooks.
The spaciousness is pushed even further on the trippy ‘Chemical’ and under-the-sea sounding ‘See Through’ as Beck swims leisurely though this bright, but forgettable, ballad. A thunderous barn-stomp, ‘Saw Lightening’ sits between the two sets of songs and feels like an ‘Odelay’-style crowd pleaser for fans of Beck’s older works. This makes for an uneven cohesion on a first half that, at times, struggles to find its way. Like the album’s cover, which sees Beck shielding from the light, it feels like he’s anxious to move forwards.
Yet there’s a happier and much more successful balance between Beck and Pharrell’s talents by the time the gloriously hazy album’s title track kicks in. Beck takes on a new cosmic identity with aplomb. The gorgeous, cosmic ‘Stratosphere’ – complete with Chris Martin backing vocals – is easily the album’s standout, closely followed by the dreamy ‘Dark Places’, where Beck’s emotive, melancholic songwriting brings some welcome substance to the airiness on a thoughtful track exploring insularity and loneliness.
“Some days I go dark places on my own / Some days I go dark places in my soul,” Beck affectingly sings on the latter. It’s a style continued on closer, ‘Everlasting Nothing’, where the minimalism of Pharrell’s worlds and the maximalism of Beck’s aligns well on their daring cosmic scale.
The album is at its best where Beck and Pharell meet in the middle: when their worlds do manage to cosmically align, the songs are at their most memorable and interesting. After a career spanning 30-years, Beck is still shape-shifting and proves, once again, that no genre isn’t malleable for him. There are a few early misfires here, but they are rescued by a stunning second half on which Beck’s trademark sound is stripped back and drenched in a glistening synth-filled air that takes him into a daring new era.
- Release date: November 22
- Record label: Capitol Records