Beck to the Future

27 January 2020 Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

Beck to the Future

Photo by Mikai Karl

Beck’s new album happened almost by accident. He had been extensively touring 2017’s Colors and planned for some time off at the end of the cycle, but then he got a call from a friend.

“Pharrell called me up and invited me down the studio – he had some song ideas and I took those and worked on them,” the US musician says. “I toured all year and then when I got home last October, I went right into the studio… Within two or three months, I had an album. It’s strange because the previous albums took about three or four years of arduous working, and this one came out as a very quick, natural process of just showing up and working on the songs.”

That’s Pharrell Williams he’s talking about. The two had been in each other’s orbit for some time – “mutual admiration,” as Beck describes it – but only got around to putting their heads together for Hyperspace, Beck’s 14th album.

“What’s really interesting is that kind of musical relationship has been maturing – it’s not like we met yesterday,” he says. “It’s the way I like to work, where it becomes more personal and you build a relationship and chemistry over time. There’s that to this record – we’ve just been kind of moving around each other for a while.”

Williams primarily produced – “I was trying to get him to sing more on this record, but he felt strongly about leaving space for me” – and the result is a delicious collection of synth-pop that blends Beck’s penchant for the experimental with his ear for melody and introspective heart. Its influences are loving and clear – Rolling Stone described single ‘Uneventful Days’ as “like David Bowie’s Major Tom checking in from distant orbit”. And Beck throws back to memorable moments in his own career (the gloriously weird ‘Saw Lightning’ could be a cut from 1996’s Odelay).

It’s also one of his most collaborative albums yet, with guest spots from Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Sky Ferreira. Having collaborated with Robyn and The Lonely Island earlier this year for a song on The Lego Movie 2 soundtrack, the singer is keen to work with even more fellow musicians. “I would love to do more songs that would be considered a duet or collaboration,” he says.

Since his debut album in 1993, Beck has made a name for himself as a musical polymath, flitting between genres with ease. From the oddity of Midnite Vultures (1999) to the earnest acoustic stylings of Morning Phase (2014), each album offers something new, but all feel undeniably Beck – a real testament to his wide-ranging creativity. More than 25 years in, he’s still finding joy in pushing the boundaries with music.

“I think I’m lucky that I somehow wound up at a place between genres, so I look at my music more like filmmaking or the auteur approach, where you’re trying to create an album, this body of work, and it’s an idea and a place in time, so what that sounds like and feels like is secondary to the big picture,” he says.

One of Beck’s most celebrated albums, 2002’s Sea Change, was inspired by the break-up of a nine-year relationship. This time around he’s going through personal changes once again – his almost 15-year marriage to actress Marissa Ribisi ended in 2019, and he’s recently distanced himself from Scientology, the controversial religion he’s been associated with for years.

There’s an existential uncertainty to the songs on Hyperspace, but the 49-year-old is reticent to talk about his personal life, instead offering a broad view on what it means to exist in these strange times, and how he’s communicating that with this new record.

“It’s fascinating and truly human, the way that we pick a path or a mode of existence as a way to engage with the world,” he says. “For myself, it’s music, and I think of music as part of hyperspace – it’s a way of escaping from the moment to something that feels like it’s some sort of transcendence from the everyday. In a way we all share this kind of impulse… There is an admirable struggle and push to find our footing in the world and try to soothe ourselves and find a way for ourselves when we feel connected. Each song on the album goes into that.”

For Beck, finding fresh material and inspiration for his music seems to come easy. He says he has no problem trying to find a new way of doing things.

“To me it’s like, you wake up every day and the tide is at a different level, the sun is in a different place and the temperature’s different. Music is a barometer of a moment, and so it’s always different no matter what,” he says. “It’s a strange business to be in, the business of song – to make something that really opens up the air in the room, and create another reality that wasn’t there before.

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a Vietnamese-Australian writer based in Melbourne.

Article first appeared in The Big Issue edition #603