On the cover of Beck Hansen’s new record, Hyperspace, the California artist known mononymously as Beck stands in the foreground in a dazzling white suit, shielding his face from an impossibly bright light. The backdrop looks like a half-finished jawbreaker with its layers of gauzy pink and blue. Behind him sits a candy-red 1980s Toyota Celica.
The effect is almost comical. The title suggests speed, precision, even perfection, but here Hansen is, towering in front of a gaudy, boxy car that now populates scrap yards across the world.
“It was a cheap car,” Hansen recalls of the mid-80s Celica models. Speaking over the phone from Los Angeles, his voice is light but authoritative in a way that feels distinctly Californian. “It’s the kind of car your friend’s mom had, it was probably used, and they didn’t have air conditioning in it. But at the same time, it was this sort of spaceship: if you had the right song on the stereo, it could transport you to another dimension and transcend the everyday.”
This is Hansen’s vision on Hyperspace: the clunky, unglamorous, pretenseless escapism we all require to function in a cruel world. These activities are our Hyperspace. “These ways we engage are our escape from the fact that the world is kind of a big and overwhelming and oftentimes scary place,” says Hansen. “We’re running from it, we’re running towards it, we’re trying to fix it, we’re trying to destroy it. For better or worse, we’re doing the best we can in our deeply flawed, human way.”
“For better or worse, we’re doing the best we can in our deeply flawed, human way.” – Beck
True to form (or lack thereof), Hyperspace is another aesthetic dogleg in a career defined by them. 2017’s bold, uncritically happy Colors was a deliberate attempt at joyous pop songwriting, a marked shift from 2014’s Grammy-winning acoustic record, Morning Phase. Hyperspace sits between these two releases. Compared to Colors, it’s austere, in part thanks to co-writer Pharrell Williams’ minimalist tendencies. (Hansen says that on the first day of writing, Williams told him, “We need to make a singer-songwriter record.”) It’s scrappy, too, with the brash twang of “Saw Lightning” and the raspy, distorted fog of opener “Hyperlife” paired with corresponding mid-album cut, “Hyperspace.”
Strangely, Hansen says that closer “Everlasting Nothing,” an acoustic-forward meditation on death and what follows, was the first song written. It’s a revealing springboard: start from the factual, inescapable endpoint, and work backwards. Hyperspace is in some ways each moment between birth and death. “Ultimately, at the end, we are reduced to our selves without anything,” says Hansen. “We don’t get to leave with status or anything that we’ve acquired. We will all be in the same place.”
These observations are startling in part because one would hardly expect a multi-Grammy-winning star to work with a cast including noted “Happy” person Pharrell, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, and Sky Ferreira, then come out with a relatively sparse mid-tempo record that feels at times nihilistic. Hansen’s reject-anthem “Loser” could also be played out as tongue-in-cheek nihilism, but it was sardonic and cheeky.
Hyperspace is decidedly more serious, maybe because 2019 and the years preceding it in North America and abroad demand it. Colors was shelved for a year after the election of Donald Trump, and now, as wildfires tear through Hansen’s home state (when we speak, he groans that Los Angeles is about to enter a heatwave) and late-capitalism continues its extractive patterns while commodifying clean air amid global alarm bells, Hyperspace’s fretful tone is apt. (Sometimes, it’s too on the nose: “Some days, I go dark places in my soul,” Hansen croons on “Dark Places.”)
Hansen doesn’t intend the record to be miserable. He explains that it’s “a record of wanting to find shelter and safety, something that gives you a sense of, ‘Things are going to be okay.’” These things can be hard to come by. Hansen rattles off a list of possibilities: religion, drugs, sex, interior decorating, jogging, restoring old cars, “or, god forbid, firearms,” all ways to deal with what he describes as the magnitude of the world. “How do we navigate our own past?” Hansen wonders rhetorically. “And the tools, the lack of tools, that we were given to deal with this world?”
When asked if he relates to the desire to escape from this world, Hansen replies lightly, “I think this is all escape, y’know? And I’m not saying that in a negative way. It’s a natural instinct we all share. It’s not about the game, it’s not even about the athletes, it’s about something bigger. It’s about surrender. I think surrender is where we find happiness.”
Hansen seems at peace with this reality, and Hyperspace reflects this: it isn’t anxious, but resigned and cool. In the final moments of “Everlasting Nothing,” Hansen offers encouragement: “Nowhere child, keep on running/In your time you’ll find something in the everlasting nothing.”
The imagery is profound, bordering on apocalyptic. At the tail end of a song about mortality, it feels off-key to offer advice on how to live, but Hansen sees it as a useful acceptance.
“It’s not a bleak idea,” he says bluntly. “It’s just sort of a truth, a statement as it is. This nothingness that’s always been there, and always will.”