Beck—or at least the Beck as represented on his records—has been in a real funk for a while, and not the fun, “Debra” kind. In the past, his pain has been listeners’ gain, specifically on 2002 breakup opus Sea Change and 2014’s Morning Phase. It’s been a strange later-career journey for the guy who found fame with goof-offs like “Loser” and “Where It’s At”—he pivoted to melancholy singer-songwriter mode but couldn’t exactly figure out where to go after that. Making another Midnite Vultures in his late 40s probably doesn’t seem all that fun, but switching fully into grown-up mode probably doesn’t either—not for the clown prince of ’90s alt-rock-hop-whatever. On a bunch of recent records, he’s tried to fuse his playful and serious sides, with occasional bursts of success and a whole bunch of records that, while not bad, are sort of perfectly forgettable.
At first, Hyperspace seems destined for that same stack of second-tier Beck records—a criticism delivered along with the opinion that second-tier Beck records are still quite good—as Modern Guilt and, to large degree, 2017’s Colors. But it turns out that this one is a grower, not a show-er, at least for the most part. You’d expect some outward flash, maybe a little “hot wax residue” or “Lamborghini Shih Tzu,” with the recruitment of super-producer/superstar Pharrell Williams, who’s on board as co-writer and co-producer for much of Hyperspace. But the guy who brought the pizzazz to “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and “Milkshake” and “Hollaback Girl” is content to let Beck drive the mid-tempo vibe for the most part.
But perhaps Williams’ contribution is more in what he didn’t do: He’s never seemed fussy, whereas Beck can be fussy to a fault. Colors’ best song—and really, Beck’s best song in forever—was “Wow,” which he readily admitted was an off-the-cuff lark. The rest of that record felt varying degrees of smothered, with each tiny sound placed to perfection at the expense of some of its spirit. Hyperspace, while far from under-produced, just feels more organic.
It’s hard not to tie the more grounded emotions of Hyperspace with events in Beck’s real life: He got divorced earlier this year, and in recent weeks has publicly distanced himself from Scientology, a connection that has dogged him for many years. There’s a lot of mourning and aching here, from the mystical intro “Hyperlife” to the more direct pleas that dot the rest of the record: On “Uneventful Days” he sings, “I don’t want to hurt you / I don’t want to let you go.” On “See Through” it’s “I feel so ugly when you see through me.” And on the album-closing “Everlasting Nothing,” he’s washed up on the shore with everyone waiting “like a standing ovation for the funeral of the sun.” It’s pretty direct, as far as Beck lyrics go, and mostly poignant.
Musically, Hyperspace is also fairly grounded. Sure, it drifts out on occasion: Both “Uneventful Days” and “Chemical” owe a lot to the French duo Air, with whom Beck has collaborated in the past and whose breezy, ’70s-inspired synths are all over those two songs. “Saw Lightning” brings some rat-a-tat drums and blues-inspired slide guitar along with some hip-hop elements, and Pharrell jumps in for a nonsensical verse. He’s not the only guest star seeking to mix things up, either: Chris Martin from Coldplay is hiding in the background of “Stratosphere,” while Sky Ferreira is right up front on the loping “Die Waiting.”
Overall, in spite of its goofy throwback artwork and the presence of Pharrell Williams, Hyperspace belongs on the shelf closest to Sea Change. There are more clunkers here than on that classic, but it feels similarly honest and world-weary. It isn’t as emotionally raw, of course: Time has a way of thickening the skin and making what was once wounding into something more disappointing. Maybe Beck’s emotional hide is tougher now, and the songs he spins from the dark side of his psyche less immediate. But for the first time in a while, it feels like there’s something worth truly digging for—and the sense that a maturing Beck has a lot of good years in front of him, not just behind.