If you spend much of your time consuming ad-supported video content, chances are you’ve heard Beck’s new song “Saw Lightning” soundtracking commercials for fancy new Beats by Dre headphones.
It’s a cool song that brings together some of Beck’s favorite sonic staples: a skittering beat, heavy bass, record scratching and slurred semi-sensical lyrics. The whole thing is even built around a bluesy acoustic slide-guitar lick that recalls the man’s early DIY work from before he was one of rock’s most reliable shapeshifters. Imagine Beck had the idea to update “Loser” for the 21st century, so he brought in Pharrell Williams to give it some oomph and then he sold it to a global tech corporation. That’s “Saw Lightning.”
It’s also a Zack Greinke-grade curveball for those anticipating Beck’s new album Hyperspace, his 14th full-length. None of the rest of its songs sound like “Saw Lightning,” which is not necessarily a bad thing—just unexpected. Instead, Hyperspace’s other 10 tracks feel like dispatches from a neon-synth future slightly faded by the yawning melancholy of Beck’s last great album, 2014’s Morning Phase.
Pharrell is all over Hyperspace, but he’s most prominent on “Saw Lightning,” which features an assortment of his trademark whoops and shouts and a garbled vocal interlude. Elsewhere, he is apparently content to collect co-writing and co-producing credits on seven tracks and contribute keyboard playing and percussion. There are also collaborations here with mega-producers like Greg Kurstin and Cole M.G.N., as well as guest vocals from folks like Sky Ferreira, Terrell Hines and Chris Martin of Coldplay.
It’s a testament, then, to Beck’s artistic vision and his personal gravity that Hyperspace holds together as well as it does. Second single “Uneventful Days” is a perfectly pleasant whirlpool of bleeps, bloops, ennui and heartbreak, even if it sounds like something Beck and Pharrell could create in their sleep. The duo’s other highlight is album closer “Everlasting Nothing,” which capably balances Beck’s organic-acoustic roots, his ever-present electronic predilections and a crescendo powered by a nine-person choir. “Nowhere child keep on running,” he sings, like an existential crisis is ensconced in a lush chorus of voices. “In your time you’ll find something.”
The other three Pharrell collaborations on Hyperspace gleam with intricately synthesized space-funk, like a sunrise reflecting off a moon lander. But despite their strengths—the glistening tower of melody on “Chemical,” Hines’ robot-rap in the title track, the headphone-candy production of “Dark Places”—each feels a bit slight, as if they’re padded with one idea run through a handful of different effects. Put colloquially, these tunes sound “same-y” when lined up.
There are interesting moments that don’t involve Pharrell on Hyperspace. “Die Waiting,” written with Cole M.G.N. and Kossiko Konan, is a breezy song of devotion set to a bulky beat and fitted with a sparkling chorus. It feels fresh and surprising. But the hidden gem of the album is its eighth track, “Stratosphere,” which just happens to also be the only song credited solely to Beck. Backed by Martin’s vocals and his longtime band members Roger Manning and Jason Falkner (both of the late, great power-pop band Jellyfish), “Stratosphere” is four minutes of feathery beauty that sounds like it’s floating up, up and away on a cloud of strummed guitar and gentle falsetto. “In the stratosphere,” Beck sings in a more graceful voice than usual, “somewhere I could disappear.”
It is no coincidence that “Stratosphere” is a standout, of course. Beck can avail himself of any songwriting partner or hit-making producer on the planet and chances are the results are going to be extremely easy on the ears and occasionally brilliant. But when he strips everything else away and zeroes in on penning a purely gorgeous song, you can hear the spark that has made him one of the most consistent and creative mainstream artists of the past 25 years. It’s still in there, sometimes you just have to travel through Hyperspace to find it.