Beck + Pharrell = Mushy Synth Songs? Huh.
Hyperspace ends up being a frustrating record. Beck and Pharrell Williams produce two excellent songs, "Uneventful Days" and "Saw Lightning", but their other five tracks each leave something to be desired.
22 November 2019
Hyperspace, Beck's 14th album, is largely a collaboration between Beck and Pharrell Williams. Williams' long track record of production and performance is hit and miss, but any attempt to list his credits would likely take up the bulk of this review. Anyway, when these two veterans team up, the result is a mostly sleepy, spacey, synth-drenched album without much in the way of big pop hooks. Probably not what fans of either artist would expect, although Beck has a long history of defying expectations.
The first single "Saw Lightning" doesn't betray any of this mood. Instead, it's a weird pop banger, featuring swampy slide guitar, a skittering drumbeat, a falsetto "ooh ooh ooh" background hook, and apocalyptic lyrics presented in an affable tone. The song runs through all of this in the first minute, throwing in harmonica, wobbly bass, and sustained electric guitar as it goes. The second chunk of the song brings in a high-pitched staccato synth line that essentially adds melody to the drumbeat and serves as the song's biggest earworm. Oh, and Pharrell makes his only vocal appearance on the album in this verse, slur-rapping his way through a few lines that are credited as "mumbles" in the liner notes. "Saw Lightning" is terrific and should take its place among the great Beck singles.
The 97-second-long album introduction song, "Hyperlife", gives a better indication of what the bulk of this record is about. Waves of quiet, new age synths build up for 40 seconds before Beck starts singing "Faster, farther, longer, harder". He slurs his voice into the synth tones and closing by repeating "With you / With yooooouuuuu" before it all fades away without a hint of percussion or any other instrument besides the synths. But Hyperspace is sneaky because this intro piece immediately gives way to another pop gem, "Uneventful Days". This track indeed has synths all over it, but it also has a solid hip-hop inspired beat and an energetic vocal take from Beck. It's catchy, and the vocal melody meshes really well with the synths while the song's mood matches the lyrics about being stuck in a sort of life holding pattern where the same things happen every day and the days bleed into each other.
From there, it's on to "Saw Lightning" and then "Die Waiting", a non-Pharrell song produced with Cole M.G.N. that meshes a Sleigh Bells-like big beat (but tamped down) with '80s-pop synths, acoustic guitars, and Sky Ferreira on backing vocals. The warm vocals, easygoing hook, and beat and guitar combine for another catchy track, and at this point Hyperspace is four songs in, and three of them are really good.
But once the album hits track five, "Chemical", it all starts to turn to mush. This one has synths all over it, plus acoustic guitar, and the barest hint of a beat that fades away in the spaced-out falsetto chorus. On its own, the song is fine, a slightly slower than mid-tempo track, and a nice change of pace from the poppier first few songs on the record. Next is "See Through", a Greg Kurstin-produced track that hits a very similar vibe. This one relies on a chilly minor key style, but it too is just a bit slower than mid-tempo, covered in synth washes, and has a low-impact hip-hop beat. Then it's onto "Hyperspace" proper, which uses much of the material from "Hyperlife" but asks the musical question, "What would this song sound like if we added a grindingly repetitive snare drum beat and doubled the length?" As you'd expect, the answer is "not great", and a pair of awkwardly inserted rap verses from Beck and Terrell Hines doesn't help, either.
This midsection is the low point of Hyperspace. The record's final four songs are an improvement, but they don't have the same energy or life to them that the album's first third does. "Stratosphere" is the only song on this album written and produced by Beck on his own. It has a clarity to it that's refreshing. The verses feature Beck and an acoustic guitar, with some minimal overdubs that add in more layers of acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies as it goes. The synths are used sparingly and effectively, including the synth drums.
"Dark Places", on the other hand, uses many of the same musical elements, but with Pharrell back onboard, it's easy to see how the two men's approaches differ. Lyrically, the song is about obsessing over a broken relationship at all hours of the night and imagining better times. But Williams envisions this as a smooth '80s R&B track. So behind Beck's singing and the acoustic guitar, the synths burble and wobble, a bass walks all over the place, and the drums play the same intrusive fill again and again. This is one of the most interesting lyrical pieces on the album, but the music doesn't match the words very well.
"Star" and "Everlasting Nothing" close out the record with very different moods. "Star" approaches the level of pop hooks of the early part of the record, with a strong melody and a low-key groove that really works. It's fun. "Everlasting Nothing", on the other hand, is an acoustic guitar ballad that has a torchy sense of finality. That means it has a good melody, but it's nothing we haven't heard before, including from Beck himself. And it comes up short in that regard.
Hyperspace ends up being a frustrating record. The collaboration between Beck and Pharrell produces two excellent songs, "Uneventful Days" and "Saw Lightning", but their other five tracks each leave something to be desired. The four non-Pharrell songs are mostly solid, aside from an uncharacteristically limp contribution from Greg Kurstin. But those flashes of greatness show that Beck can still turn it on when he wants to, and instead, here he's often settling for tracks that fit the mood and style he wants on the record without being up to the level of songcraft he's capable of. Should we still expect the level of quality to be that high, 25 years into his career? It's hard to say, but ultimately this album feels like it might have been just a few decisions away from being really great. But maybe we should be celebrating the good material instead of lamenting the missed opportunities.
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