There would seem to be a confluence of forces tugging at the onlooker, discouraging him or her from examining this situation logically. One would be, of course, Colors, which sounded like the very definition of pop, least-common-denominator record label pandering. Another would be the jolting, bewildering contrast of styles from Beck album to Beck album and, in conjunction with this, this guy’s general tendency to exist as a parody of himself, his “rhinestone cowboy” Woody Guthrie shtick almost comedically askance of his default mainstream, beat-wielding disposition (this dichotomy rendered in beautiful adjacency on “Saw Lightning,” which opens and closes with these so-inappropriate-they’re-appropriate slide guitar blips).
But the primary vehicle of this album’s success, what centrally makes it a classic album and his best album since Mutations, is that it’s truly HIM singing things songs. He doesn’t sound like some puppeteer dripping out pointless, cheap feelings to trite rhythms, rather really stepping into his roles with all his awkward white-boy charisma, like a funky-fresh version of Weezer. And indeed, further along these exact lines, this is in a sense the exact album Weezer has been attempting to make this entire decade, generally failing if not necessarily failing miserably — a modicum of contemporary pop with the artist’s extant personality superimposed on it.
But one thing that helps Beck out in this particular regard is his former work which indeed did bleed with earnest emotion (and I’m certainly talking about Sea Change, as well as maybe “Broken Drum” from Guero which is a similar tune and “New Round” from The Information, which was a guide for living dedicated to his son). This is something Weezer doesn’t really have under their belt, save perhaps for the awkward half-ballad “Butterfly” which closes Pinkerton. Beck is unabashedly, richly emotional on these songs, but not indulgently so — it’s as if his emotions really are the rhythms of his heart and his heart is beating in perfect lockstep with the beats from Pharrell and the rest of his producer team working on Hyperspace.
All in all, it’s certainly good to hear from Beck, and in a way it’s hard to know what to say about this project otherwise. That is, it’s about what you’d expect the new Beck album to sound like in 2019 — it’s glossy and shiny, rhythmic and genre-straddling. The x-factor, again, is its humility, rendered as a sort of spare, pastoral resignation to the art of melody. Taking the crown, I’d say, would be the sequential pairing of “Stratosphere,” with its ballad-like, deathly simple chorus of “In the stratosphere / There’s no way to go from here”, and “Dark Places,” which pushes things to hitherto impossible bounds with chordal creativity and tension, when it sounded like nothing could follow the finality and languid poignancy of the predecessor. Whether or not this album becomes a success, as we know, given the times, will depend on a set of delicate and almost arbitrarily rendered rules. Anybody, however, who has grown up listening to this man’s work from Mellow Gold through The Information will be able to sink into this relatively brief LP and voraciously consume it, at that, appreciating the coy and natural way it marries certain of his former styles and techniques into one loquacious orchard of songs.