Back in 2002, a memorable — although admittedly perhaps misremembered — review of Beck’s artistic gear-shift to the melancholic folk rock of Sea Change credited the LP to “Beck in grandpa-mode”. Almost two decades later, some say that Mr Hansen has been in that mode ever since.
Although he made a slight return to his rustic roots with 2014’s multi-Grammy award-winning Morning Phase, the nature of old man Hansen’s old-hat impulses come not in his adherence to one single genre. It’s quite the contrary; it’s due to the genre-agnosticism he’s always been known for — a sensibility that melded country, electronic, hip-hop, soul, rock, and ‘exotica’ into some of the best party music of the 1990s — that today he seems less like the goofy, stylish troubadour of yore and more like Steve Buscemi‘s PI character in that one gag from 30 Rock. Fatally, as Beck became older, so too did his schtick.
His fourteenth album Hyperspace, like Dreams before it, appeals to distinctly modern popular music forms — no doubt propelled by likeminded pop chameleon Pharrell Williams handling production duties. ‘Uneventful Days’ and ‘Love is a Chemical’ boasts pseudo-trap beats, spaced synth and even a quick-fire vocal delivery recalling someone like Migos. But ties from the past haven’t been severed completely; harmonicas, acoustic guitars and some slide action lead ‘Saw Lightning’, coming off like an updated version of ‘Hotwax’.
To his credit, it wouldn’t usually occur to many artists with 30-year-long careers to come near a drum pad, and the kindest reading of Hyperspace would respect his willingness to adapt — which would be much easier if his attempts didn’t amount to such a middling LP. It’s very telling that its second half — mostly consisting of acoustic-lead, synth-fucked ballads like ‘Stratosphere’ and ‘Dark Places’, all in the vein of Mutations — finds him on finer, if altogether much safer, form.
What dominates much of Beck’s recent work, Hyperspace included, is a detrimental uncertainty largely absent from his freewheeling early years. While other artists manage to convert uncertainty into searching art, Beck is an artist who just seems at a loss. Worst of all, the element of surprise within past glories, and his joyful surrender to incoherence, has long waned into mediocrity that’s much too keen to please. One wonders if Hyperspace even pleases the man who made it.