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Album Review: Beck’s ‘Hyperspace’

Again moving left of center, Beck and Pharrell Williams find new life in minimalist, cosmopolitan synth-pop.

Veering dangerously close to the atom heart of the mainstream does something to an artist of adventure. It can make a superman weak in its presence, like Kryptonite (it took years and Tin Machine for Bowie to recover from “Let’s Dance”), or build a stronger artist by moving ever more consistently into success’s center square, or its square center (see how Drake’s most recent album, “Scorpion,” is his least abstract and biggest selling).

Such is the story of Beck and his move from ’90s indie-icon, dobro-punk, lo-fi loser and slop-hop master funkateer into the realm of mood-swinging, mainstream rock maker with 2017’s “Colors.” Produced by Greg Kurstin, “Colors” wasn’t anything like Kurstin’s hit albums for Adele, Kelly Clarkson or Pink. “Colors” did, however, hold the key to blunt melodicism, something that genre-jumbling Beck’s more complex tracks of the immediate past lacked.

Benefitting from such melodic directness, yet holding onto the spare but cosmopolitan complexity of albums such as 2002’s “Sea Change” and 2005’s “Guero,” surely became a blueprint for Beck when going into “Hyperspace,” with its principle collaborator Pharrell Williams.

Together, as producers and occasional co-writers, the duo turned “Hyperspace” into a joyfully introspective, minimalistic but sophisticated, contagiously melodic, straight-ahead, analog synth-pop record with a fleeting few of old school Beck’s signature touches — a few raps here, some dobro and harmonica there.

For the most part, Beck is using his lower vocal register to sing quickly spun, contemplative tales to a soundtrack that is equal parts Washed Out and Todd Rundgren during his post-blue-eyed soul phase (that is, the 1973-74 period that found him morphing through the layered synth-asia of “A Wizard/A True Star” into the navel-gazing soft prog of Utopia).

How does “Hyperspace” affect the charts? Who knows? This is the best, most frank and adventurous thing Beck has done since “Morning Phase,” but with a far lighter touch in mood and musicality. Going one step further, it is the wiliest work that Williams has produced outside of his abstract funk-rock NERD agenda. Although you’d hate for Beck and Pharrell to repeat themselves, these guys are good for each other.

Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Sky Ferreira may sing on it. Kurstin even appears as a co-writer on “See Through,” a willowy soul-hop track with a  breathy high vocal — a yodel, even, at song’s coda — that owes as much to Khalid’s sleek R&B as it does Nick Martinelli’s brand of tapped percussion. No matter. This is all Beck and Pharrell.

Going for unadulterated, understated synth-pop where no song overstays its welcome, Beck moves through an icily airy, glitch-hop start (“Hyperlife”) to get to the bell-tinging, table-knocking “Uneventful Days.” Here, among the doubled-up harmonies (Williams and Beck together?), and pillowy synth clouds, the singer tells of “living in the dark, waiting for the light” and being “caught up in these never-ending battle lines,” until he gets to the second stanza, and a stark insistence: “You might know my name, but you don’t know my mind.”

If Beck’s “Hyperspace” has a quiet mission statement, this is it.

The pulled steel strings, blowsy harmonica, cheesy rat-tat rhythms and flat-line rap of “Saw Lightning” brings us back in time to “Loser”-era Beck — that is, until the pulse grows more undulating, Beck’s vocal flow grows tuneful and a glammy synth wash blows in like a storm. There’s even a Stone Roses-ish feel to this for a moment. That folk-funky feel with its twittering keyboards trickles into the next track, “Die Waiting,” with its slamming drum FX upfront, its acoustic guitar strum below, and a want-you-need-you rap right down the center. It’s galactic hip-hop without being retro or obvious, with a deep hook so subtle, it’s damned near an Easter egg.

To an extent, the hard-to-hold hooks and spaciousness of “Hyperspace” are what makes it so intriguing.

The brief album’s middle section, “Chemical,” “Hyperspace,” “Stratosphere” and “Dark Places,” make up the album’s core. While the finger-snapping double synths of the trippy “Chemical” are pure Rundgren (even down to Todd’s George Harrison guitar obsession), the title tune is cosmic space-age soul of the highest order. So, too, are the divinely lovely (and “Sea Change”-feeling) “Stratosphere” — with Beck backed by Chris Martin’s vocals — and the melancholy “Dark Places.” The latter, a study of epic loneliness, has the feel of flute-y chamber pop, complete with proggy bass lines, a baroque concertina’s tinkle, a phase-shifted bridge and an insular airiness that would make Alan Parsons proud.

By the time Beck and Pharrell get to the last two tracks, they’re all but ready to move aside the moist synth washes and play in another field. What that means is that, on the flickering funk of “Star,” Beck moves into a shaky-voiced lower octave, takes on “falling down the waterfall” with a cocky swagger, and sings atop a squelching synth-bass tone that is as sensuous as it is soul-searching. A more pronounced floppy-boot percussive thump and a deeply burrowing finger-picked guitar makes the finale — the lilting synth-soul of “Everlasting” — a worthy epic. Here, Beck’s voice is at its richest, unfussiest and most masculine, as he approaches life’s existential dilemma with pragmatic aplomb and grace.

“Friends I’ve known / Come and gone / Like a soldier / With no song / Still I tried / To get back home / In the everlasting nothing,” goes the chorus, leaving Beck slightly battered, but still brighter for the experience. Gorgeous.

Beck
“Hyperspace”
Capitol Records

Album Review: Beck's 'Hyperspace'

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