Beck “Hyperspace”

The pull of cognitive closure is vehement. The ability to draw conclusions on the basis of incomplete information is a small part of what makes us human, but a meaningful part of what has kept us around for a couple hundred thousand years. It helps us to respond decisively. It helps us make reasonable predictions and solve mysteries and recognize patterns. But, as much as anything, it helps us avoid discomfort. As a species, we generally love cogency and despise open endedness. Our antidote to the disorganizing effect of meaninglessness is cognitive closure. What a relief.

On the other hand, the pursuit of cognitive closure is a leading cause of knee jerk reactions, false impressions and general close mindedness. As much as it is a problem solving aid, it is equally, if not more so, a problem causing agent. It lurks beneath bigotry and insularity. It’s a friend to confirmation biases. It’s part of why our country (and most of our world) is irretrievably polarized -- because we have come to rigid conclusions based on too little evidence. Cognitive closure causes pigeonholing and rushes to judgment. But to resist it requires a level of patience and mindfulness that most of us cannot tolerate or afford. And so, that’s the rub. We need cognitive closure to move forward in life. But, too often, and in too heavy a dose, it leads us far astray. 

Beck has made a career operating in that tension between cognitive closure and openness. No musician I can think of -- in fact, no person I can think of -- appears so driven to defy resolution. His closest competition, of course, is Bob Dylan, famous for his false autobiographies, his musical shapeshifting and his lifelong antagonism of narrative structure. The Todd Haynes film about Dylan, appropriately named “I’m Not There,” was partially a reference to an obscure song from “The Basement Tapes,” but mostly a metaphor for his elusiveness. Dylan hated answering questions. Beck is like his hero in that way. But, unlike Dylan, he presents each new album as a meticulous product that signifies very specifically, only to then deny any such significance and quickly run in an opposite direction.  

Beck albums are hermetically sealed collages that beg for conclusions: There’s his young Anti-Folk record. The Timbaland meets Rick James record. The Beastie Boys record. The AM Gold record. And so on. The music generally conforms to the idea and Beck styles himself and his product to validate the thesis. He uses aesthetics to functionally ensure cognitive closure. But then, in an instant, he is gone someplace else. The last idea and avatar disappear and he’s onto the next. He’ll speak only elliptically about what his intent was or what it all meant. He almost never sounds personal, even in the rare instances when he’s playing a singer songwriter. In interviews, he stays on the surface, never confirming assumptions. Sometimes it feels affected and sometimes it feels like performance art. And whether it’s because he is allergic to closure or protective of his privacy or professionally interested in discomfort, we will never know. What we do know, however, is that Beck is playing in this tension. The moment that you fall in love with his new album and think that you may have located Beck -- the man inside of the art — he is suddenly not there.

Unlike Robert Zimmerman from Minnesota, whose father ran a furniture and appliance store, Bek David Campbell was born in Los Angeles, the son of a Warhol acolyte and a Canadian composer and arranger. Moreover, his maternal grandfather was a conceptual artist prone to exploring the very thin lines between meaning and meaninglessness. If ever there was a person genetically designed to make art that was both studious and slippery, it was Beck. 

The first indications arrived in either late 1993 or early 1994, depending on where you lived and what radio stations or friends you had access to. It was in that fragile period between Grunge and Alternative that I first heard “Loser.” Like most everyone, I winced at the chorus and marveled at everything else. I’d never heard slide guitar with beats like that. I’d never heard high-low, stream of consciousness rapping like that. I’d never seen a pretty, slight, Nordic man wear sunglasses and a ski hat like that. At the time, Beck was breathtaking in his novelty. And, before “Mellow Gold” came out in March of 1994, I just assumed that it was an accident or a lark -- that Beck was Gen X performance art. That “Loser” was like The Beastie Boys “Cookie Puss,” just a decade later. I was in the minority, certain that Beck was, at best, a one hit wonder, but also possibly a disingenuous slacker. I played that song over and over and tapped my feet and clapped my hands. But, I did not like how it made me feel.

However, in the first of many acts that would undo my cognitive closure, twenty three year old Beck Hansen turned out to be something pretty spectacular. “Mellow Gold” took his previous, and less interesting, Anti-Folk experiments and added layers and beats. Like his parents and his grandfather, he was an artist from the very beginning. By the end of 1994, it seemed possible that he was the coolest man in LA, if not all of America. He was the left coast’s answer to The Beastie Boys (who’d already relocated to LA), but smaller, prettier and a better dancer. Us haughty Indie Rock kids noticed that Beck retreated as quickly as he emerged. His MTV appearances looked and sounded like pranks. He confirmed nothing. But he also denied nothing. And, within months of his break out, he went to Olympia, Washington, to record a mostly Folk and Blues album with Calvin Johnson for K Records. By the end of his first year in our lives, he seemed both like the real deal and like someone who’s deal we’d never, ever know.

For most of the next ten years, no artist better embodied the everything-is-possible-all-at-once idealism of Alt culture than Beck. He simply did whatever he wanted. And then he did something completely different that he also wanted to do. Two years after “Pulp Fiction” and seven years after “Paul’s Boutique,” Beck released “Odelay,” considered at the time to be the high water mark for post-modern Pop collage. It was weird and popular and rightfully adored. In 1996, Beck wasn’t simply a star, he was the zeitgeist. He collaborated with anyone who was de rigueur and invited in artists who were cool beyond the mainstream’s conception. Like Dylan and Whitman before him, Beck contained multitudes. And every time you thought you had a handle on him, he’d swerve in a direction that was off the map and possibly outside of three dimensions. “Odelay” gave way to the gorgeous Alt Rock bummer of “Mutations” in 1998, which gave way to the hyper-modern, cheap but fancy Funk of “Midnight Vultures” in 1999. That year, Beck put on his skinny pants, his tank tops and his falsetto and trotted out “Debra” on MTV, VH1 fashion shows and any late night TV that was hip enough to invite him on. On that song, wherein he meets a girl at JC Penny and invites her and her sister (Debra) to step into his Hyundai, Beck sang and danced like no man I’d ever seen before who was not named “Prince.” He was flawless. He even sweated cool. I found him to be thrilling and mesmerizing. It was tempting to draw conclusions about what sort of artist he was and would become. But, he was also unknowable. He seemed just a little too perfect. Too knowing. Too cute. Too fucking cool. I loved his songs. I wished I could dance like him or wear tank tops like him. But I had no idea what he felt, or if he even felt anything at all.

Between 1994 and 2002, for most of the world, Beck was simply a preternaturally talented, Alternative Pop star. He won Grammys, had Platinum records and Indie cred. Men, women and teens swooned for him. His approval score was a ten out of ten. I was firmly in his camp, but also, I was scratching at the surface and pulling at loose threads. As much as I admired him, was I sure what I was admiring and why I did so? Was it possible that his talent was just imitation and gimmickry? Was his rich collage really just cheap assemblage? Was his unblinking, unsmiling affect possibly misanthropic performance art? Most of all, did any of these questions even matter? You could never quite tell with Beck. He forced you to resist cognitive closure. One day he would claim to be a lifelong Scientologist and the next day he would deny any such notion, suggesting that he was more casually Jewish. He’d answer interview questions with Beat poetry. He never seemed to blink and rarely smiled. Eventually, I couldn’t help but wonder if his unerring coolness was not artistry or even style but rather a collective reflection of our own desires and biases in collage form. Was his music just a simulation of interesting music? Was Beck, himself, just a simulation?

Most of my inane questions were temporarily put to rest in 2002, with the release of “Sea Change,” his straight faced, heartbreaking, singer songwriter album. The whiplash from “Midnight Vultures” to “Sea Change” was unexpected to the point of sounding impossible. How had that artist made this record? Similarly, it was hard to fathom that Beck made the album in the throes of a break up. “Who would ever dump Beck?” many of us wondered. Mostly, though, it was that “Sea Change” sounded like songs made by an actual human man, who cried and bled. The cover was a tired, ruddy cheeked portrait, with Day-Glo rainbow tears around his eyes. The music was spare -- light on percussion but dripping with strings and vocal arrangements. “Lost Cause” was his “If You See Her, Say Hello” in the same way that “Sea Change” was kind of his “Blood on the Tracks.” It’s a very basic idea, thematically and musically, but delivered richly and masterfully. Where there was style before, was now entirely substance. Where there was collage, there was now composition. It was decided: Beck was the real deal. He wasn’t just an artist. He was an “Important Artist.”

It’s been nearly twenty years since “Sea Change” -- more than twice the time it took Beck to get to that album from “Mellow Gold.” During this run up and into middle age, a lot happened: He married Marisa Ribisi. He had two children. He released seven albums -- most of them appreciated, and a couple beloved. He reunited with Nigel Godrich and The Dust Brothers and, predictably, made an album with Dangermouse. He started Record Club and recorded iconic albums, including Yanni’s “Live at The Acropolis,” with celebrity friends. He released twenty unrecorded songs as sheet music, for other musicians to cover in their own style. He stayed in California. He stayed thin and pretty and weird. In fact, to the casual observer, he barely aged. He continued to win Grammys and sell records. But, with each successive album, he impressed less. There were no more “Odelays” or “Midnight Vultures” or “Sea Changes.” The turns felt less twisted. He’d not become predictable. But, to some fans and many critics, Beck had become kind of boring in middle age. Every few years, we got a well made, kind of sleepy album, with guitars, beats, samples and maybe some strings. All were good enough. None were life changing. A couple were ho hum. In 2002, I had firmly concluded that Beck could never be uninteresting. A decade later, I was less sure. That’s the thing about cognitive closure -- most things don’t stay closed.

In 2019, I read that he had separated from his wife. It had been several years since I had any Beck in my life. I’d skipped “Colors” and, even, “Morning Phase.” But, I figured, if Beck was ever going to make another revealing, to the bone album, it would have been then. The separation seemed too big and too human to not consume his music. However, at the same time, I heard that he was making an album with Pharrell, which made perfect stylistic sense but seemed tonally contrary to a “divorce album.” Pharrell made happy music with hitchy beats and round bass lines. Divorce was the opposite of Pharrell -- sad and slow and sharp. It was hard to fathom how Beck could write and sing his way through the tension.

Beck_-_Hyperspace.png

“Hyperspace” was the record born out of this unlikely strain. The title is taken from an old Atari game and refers to an escape function that rescues us from whatever grind, pain or discomfort we’re experiencing -- in Atari or reality.  Hyperspace — the idea — is fast-moving, spectacular and dreamlike. The cover to Beck’s album communicates all of the above, in his typically cheeky style. He’s standing in a white suit, in front of a cherry red Toyota Celica (a word that is derived from the Latin for “heavenly”). The Celica was a relatively cheap sports car -- popular but never adored and certainly not considered luxurious or high design. Here, however, Beck reclaims it as part of a collage which is headlined by the album’s title in Japanese. The cover evokes everything from contemporary H&M advertisements to “Back to the Future.” It bursts with Pop in a way that matches the title but betrays any feeling of sadness or separation. Before I heard a note of music, I wondered if he would completely skirt the issue and make an album entirely void of divorce. 

I mean, why would he invite us into his divorce? Seriously. For a quarter of a century, Beck had been far more opaque than he’d been revealing. He’d made a career resisting cognitive closure. On the other hand, there was “Sea Change.” And, now he was nearing fifty years old. Maybe he was a different man. Softer. Less sealed off. In between the album’s announcement and its eventual release at the end of 2019, I was interested as to how he’d handle it. What could a Beck divorce album produced by Pharrell sound like? By any measure, I was a lapsed fan. But, for the first time in a long time, I was deeply curious about where he’d been and where he was going. 

As it turns out, “Hyperspace” sounds almost exactly like a “Pharrell divorce album.” The producer's fingerprints are all over the writing and production. The beats sound more expensive; the bass much fuller. And the songs have a cut and paste quality to them that is less collage and more tapestry. All of these features are hallmarks of their superstar producer. And yet, it’s hard to specifically pinpoint Pharrell’s incremental value. None of the songs are no-brainer Pop singles. The stitching of the quiltwork is highly professional, but you still notice the threads. And, while the beats click and pump, they are in service of generally dreamy, mid-tempo songs that are not meant to move your body. It’s an uncanny combination of fluorescent colors and a cloudy subject. “Hyperspace” sounds less like an escape and much more like a malaise.

“Hyperlife” opens the album with New Age Moog that transports you into the spa therapy studio. It’s a short, mostly instrumental track, but it introduces the dreamy tone of the keys and Beck’s vocals, which are piled a mile high and arranged like a string section. Though the songs and tempos vary, the tone of the synthesizers and the one man, orchestral harmonies are relative constants. The slow Moog returns in Air-ish, French Disco mode for “Uneventful Days.” And while most of the album sounds like singer songwriter Beck working against the instincts of happy beatmaster Pharrell, the duo sounds in synch here. If the opener was music for a massage, the second track transitions to the hotel pool. It has a sad, easy vibe about it, good for nursing a break-up in a cabana with an afternoon drink. Interestingly, none of the singles on “Hyperspace” reached the top ten of the U.S. Modern Rock charts -- a relative anomaly for Beck. But “Uneventful Days” was a number one song on the Adult Alternative charts, which is both a comment on Beck’s audience and a fairly accurate assessment of the song itself. It’s not a Pop song. It’s not Alternative. It’s lovely, wistful music for grown ups, with some fancy synths and beats added.

Much of “Hyperspace” operates with that same energy, somewhere between fun, if half-hearted, Beck and pretty, if boring, ennui. Acoustic guitars float up and then sink down. The bass thumps for a minute and then calms itself. The beats stitch together seemingly disparate parts. You can almost hear Pharrell and Beck, with piles of ideas, mixing and matching. The keyboards do the heavy work of coating everything with an atmosphere that sounds less like a sunny, gentle escape and more like a sad artist trying to distract himself. Sky Ferreira joins for “Die Waiting,” a less successful track that sounds like what I assume half of TikTok sounds like. However, on “Stratosphere,” Chris Martin joins for a plainly beautiful song about drug addiction that could double for a song about middle-aged loss and regret. It only nominally resembles early Coldplay or “Sea Change.” What it really sounds like is Kasey Musgraves’ “Golden Hour” -- laconic, spare and pristine. It’s certainly not the most interesting song on the record, but it is definitely the loveliest. 

On the title track, Beck and Pharrell concoct a stoned, beachside vibe for the singer to arrange his vocals around and for Terrell Hines to rap on top of. It works just fine, primarily because the MC provides gravity to music that constantly runs the risk of floating away. The same could be said for “Saw Lightning,” which finds its roots in the slide guitar and harmonica, and for “Star,” which is a straight Neo-Soul song and the one track wherein Beck’s vocals are relatively unadorned. The synthesizers connect the song back to the rest of the album, but it’s probably the only time on “Hyperspace” where you hear the singer in his own voice. Everywhere else, it feels like ambiance or decoration or experimentation.  

There is no disaster on “Hyperspace.” Nothing embarrasses the Hipster Dylan brand. But, as Beck albums go, it can also sound like forty minutes of filler. Some of this effect is caused by the sameness of the acoustic guitars against the synthesizers against the choral vocals. And some of this is caused by the very high bar that Beck, himself, has set. “Hyperspace” sounds like an artist without the energy to find transcendence or escape. It doesn’t sound like a man giving up or giving in, but maybe like a guy who just doesn’t want to try so hard.

Whatever the root cause, “Hyperspace” underperformed. Critics shrugged and customers mostly passed. If you compare it to “Morning Phase” and “Colors,” I think it stands up just fine. In fact, if you compare it to the best Animal Collective or Dirty Projector albums, I think it might even stand taller. But Beck isn’t twenty or thirty something and he’s not from Brooklyn. Pitchfork tired of him about a decade ago and, honestly, so did many of us. We made our conclusions and we expected something different post-divorce. As much as it’s unexceptional, “Hyperspace” bumps up against our desire for cognitive closure. We already filled in the white space in our portraits of Beck. He made unexpected albums. He continued to progress. And, with the exception of “Sea Change,” he hid behind layers and rhymes. We had enough Pharrell in our lives. We had enough H&M ads. We had enough Air. And we had everything that Beck had provided us before 2019. “Hyperspace” was not exactly what we expected, and so, it was also not what we wanted.

Almost thirty years into Beck’s spectacular career, I’m still fighting my desire for cognitive closure. He’s released fourteen studio albums, made dozens of obsessed-over music videos and graced countless magazine covers. But do I still understand what he signifies or how his story ends? Honestly, no. I know what the Pavement and Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters stories are. They’re not finished but they’re sufficiently written and I can fill in the blanks. I know even more about Nirvana and Sonic Youth and The Beastie Boys, but for different reasons. However, Beck’s story keeps starting over. He goes from weirdo troubadour to slacker to hipster MC to Alt poster boy to singer songwriter to designer brand to high end cruise control to middle aged divorcee. And even when he sounds the same, his music somehow feels different and kind of opaque. I could draw a conclusion, but I’d assuredly be wrong. So, what’s the point? 

Recently, Beck has started wearing the same outfit Bob Dylan wore in 1967 around the time he and The Band recorded “I’m Not There” -- black pinstripe suit, matching, unbuttoned collared shirt and a stetson hat. Aside from his blonde hair, the shape and form of the two men could not be more alike. But whereas Dylan was violent in his evasion, Beck has become congenial in middle age. He’s sincere and seemingly factual in interviews. He is so precise and thoughtful with every word that, if you didn’t know better, you’d swear you were hearing something profoundly revealing. But, if you listen closely, you also realize that he’s never giving anything away. It’s an uncanny tension -- providing us with evidence, and daring us to make conclusions, while constantly planning some elaborate misdirection. Whatever he does next, I am certain that Beck will be fully present and also that I will still not be able to locate him. In fact, I suspect that I’ll never get closure. I’ll just have to live in that discomfort and see what I see and hear what I hear. Imagine that.

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Eddie Murray “Steady Eddie”