That supremely grainy, lapsteel guitar riff of Loser, Beck Hansen’s break-out hit from 1993, is engraved into the grey matter of any ’90s music fan. Though brand new album Hyperspace pushes the alt-indie icon’s style further into the immersive soundscapes for which he’s won awards and adoration, it does contain a couple of throwbacks: Everlasting Nothing ends with a familiar little beat whose clave accents resemble the opening of High 5 on Odelay (1996), and Saw Lightning contains a repeated slide up an acoustic guitar that resembles the afore-mentioned kernel from Loser.
Hansen says he does consider certain sonic elements close to his heart, but their inclusion isn’t deliberate. “I think it’s spontaneous, and not pre-meditated at all,” he says. “Something like Saw Lightning, I might have just had a guitar lying around, and started playing, and started recording. And I probably did ten different riffs. The one he picked was probably the most simple thing I played, and it just kind of went from there.”
Who is ‘he’, you ask? That’s Pharrell Williams, co-producer of the album, whose extra contributions are acknowledged on nearly every track (including Saw Lightning, for which he is credited with “mumbles”). “He works in a similar way to me, which was very instinctual, and just embracing an openness and willingness for things to go where they’re going to go,” Hansen says. He adds that he’s been a Pharrell and N*E*R*D fan since day dot. “Since they first came out – since the first song hit the radio,” he attests. “I remember being at the studio and saying, ‘I want to work with these guys on my next record.’ That was 20 years ago,” he smiles. “I don’t think I could have imagined that it would take this long. But you know, in a way, the friendship-relationship has matured into something that feels like a real, organic collaboration in songwriting. So, I’m 100% a fan. I’m just getting to indulge my fandom, hearing his voice on my songs!”
Pharrell’s penchant for crisp beats and bent details is all over Hyperspace, including the immaculately produced Uneventful Days (the beautiful video for which was directed by Devonté Hynes, AKA Blood Orange; in that nostalgic vein, it features Westworld colleagues Evan Rachel Wood and Tessa Thompson, and Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat, referencing various classic Beck clips of years past). The song has real compulsion and triplet-fed movement to it, but is paired with resigned lyrics which speak of never-ending days, time moving slowly, and waiting around all night. “When I was trying to find the voice for it – or, the characters of the song – it felt to me like somebody who was in a place in a new town, with a new career and a new life, and they’re taking stock of the old one,” Hansen explains. “That moment before the new has begun. I think maybe, in a way, in America it feels a little bit like we’re in that place.”
Hansen’s distinctive but varied vocal delivery rears its Hydra-heads across these tracks, too: Stand-out Star includes his meandering sing-rap approach, with the line “Walking crooked down the hall” delivered in perfect complement to its meaning. But Hyperspace also continues the trend of lyrics moving away from the surreality of his early work. Though dreamlike, compare Hyperspace’s wire-to-the-heart ideas (“Faster, farther, longer, harder, I just want more and more/ Beauty, light and crushing life, I want to feel more and more” – Hyperspace) to the word-salad of yore (“Heads are hanging from the garbageman trees/ Mouthwash, jukebox, gasoline” – Devil’s Haircut, 1996).
To what does Hansen attribute this shift? “I’m just trying to make something that is more like a conversation with somebody – where they can pick up on exactly what you’re talking about – and doing that in an artful way,” he says. “I feel like simplicity in lyrics is much more difficult to do well. Myself, I’m a word guy. A lot of [my early] lyrics are intentional, and have some sort of connection to an idea – they’re not just a bunch of random words put together. But you have to sit with those words a bit, and take some time to think about them. You have to meet the world that those words are coming from half-way. Whereas these songs, these lyrics, are directly in the now of current life – and hopefully they connect that way.”
Hyperspace by Beck is out November 22 via EMI.
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