Hyperspace can be defined as a rarefied, alternative universe that can only be entered “using an energy field or other device”, according to Wikipedia. It is also an accurate description of the music as experienced when listening to Beck’s 14th studio album.
Two things hang over this release. The first is the break-up of Beck’s 15-year marriage, though he has been at pains to distance the event from the resultant songs. The second is a realisation of his dream to work with Pharrell Williams. The pair were in contact for a long time before recording began, but inevitably the anticipated long player took a while to materialise.
It seems Beck was expecting a minimal approach along the lines of Pharrell’s production for Snoop Dogg’s Drop It Like It’s Hot. Instead he got something rather more substantial in both variety and texture, perfectly illustrated by the co-written song Saw Lightning. It is easily the most striking moment of the album, drums ricocheting across the stereo picture like ball-bearings in a game of pinball. Beck clearly enjoys the rapport with Pharrell’s falsetto, the effect surprisingly not far from Williams’ work on Justin Timberlake’s Man Of The Woods.
Like a strike of lightning, however, the song is a one-off, for elsewhere in Hyperspace the mood is far more relaxed. The sound is recognisably blue, in a number of pastel shades, and Beck’s mood, while often positive, can on occasion feel distracted. Uneventful Days is candid, singing of the “Uneventful days and uneventful nights, living in the dark and waiting for the light”. Later in the chorus he confesses that “I know, I know, I know it’s gone”, while Seethrough gets even more graphic as he admits “I feel so ugly when you see through me”.
If his marriage break-up really isn’t present in the album, then these excerpts would beg to differ, especially in Dark Places, where “…love, it goes, now she’s gone and all I see is shadows”. Its backdrop is the musical equivalent of a starry night, guitars laid wide open by spacey keyboards.
The cover of Hyperspace is reminiscent of publicity shots for the film Drive, Beck seemingly ready to blast off in his sports car. Yet little of the music here hits the tempo required for fifth gear heroics, preferring to spend its time down in first or second. To get its positive energy the music relies on the voice and its airy backdrop. These unite beautifully on Die Waiting, which has easy contentment with light melancholia in the background. The following Chemical finds the falsetto reaching ever loftier climbs (“I’m so high, love is a chemical”) and trumps it with a memorable chorus earworm.
The songs have been heavily processed on passing through Pharrell’s studio, the vocal filtered and auto-tuned, but in a strangely effective way that suits the textures behind. The title track itself has treatments to Beck’s voice and a chopped up cameo from Terrell Hines, but it works. Stratosphere feels most representative of where the album spends its time, suspended way above solid ground and gliding on thermals. It requires very little effort to enjoy, yet the feeling on occasion is that it could have stretched itself further, especially when considering the pair’s past achievements.
Yet perhaps that is the rub, less being more, for Hyperspace is another example of Beck’s ability to hop between genres. He has an effortless flexibility that once again serves him really well in the album format. Not all of the 11 tracks here strike gold, but they glitter and glow with positivity. Given the world’s stresses and troubles at the time of its release, that means there is definitely room for time spent in Hyperspace.