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Beck - The Information Print E-mail
Friday, 01 December 2006
format:    16-bit CD + DVD
performance:    7
sound:    8.5
release year:    2006
label:    Interscope Records
reviewed by:    Jonathan Easley

ImageBeck Hansen’s ninth full-length album (that number includes two early-‘90s independent releases), The Information, is a discursive pastiche, a monster-work of roundabouts and tempo changes that forces the listener to decide once and for all exactly how they like their Beck Hansen. That means there’s something here for everyone, as well as something here for everyone to skip. The Information pulls from the hot wax, Dylan-esque psych-folk of his Generation X defining works (Mellow Gold, Odelay), his bloozy, baroque Nick Drake takes (Mutations, Sea Change), and most visibly his motherboard, party-funk configurations (Midnight Vultures, Guero). That makes sense; The Information was scheduled to follow the depressing beauty of Sea Change but was shelved for four years so he could collaborate with the Dust Brothers on Guero. The album ultimately takes from these two disparate sounds, as well as from every sensory perception Beck experienced in the interim; the only binding quality is his wickedly woven, surreal lyrics. That said, The Information is usually interesting and at times brilliant, butr it peaks early and is back-loaded with way too much information.

Opener “Elevator Music” showcases Beck’s signature metered style: half-rapped words full of obscure, half-mad lyrics keep time to bass, keys, synth, loops, Gameboys and Speak ‘n Spells. Leftover feelings of heartbreak from Sea Change bleed into the subdued contemplation of follow-up “Think I’m in Love.” While crossing a mature bridge of strings and piano, it has the feel of an empty-house, clock-watching, hyperactively self-aware loner who has inexplicably attracted the eye of his dream girl and is sure to blow it in a moment of strangeness: “I think I’m in love/But it makes me kind of nervous to say so/What if it’s wrong?”
There’s nothing too frantic here; Beck moves casually between extreme situations with no sense of panic. He’s still measuring his paces to a delirious, spacey, ‘80s beat even when his cell phone dies and he’s lost in the desert. “Strange Apparition” is for me the album standout. It starts off as a piano bar rocker, Beck belting out “Lord please don’t forsake me” before slipping through a narrow fissure into a pastoral, acoustic guitar-driven, gospel-blues grinder. Beck’s depth shines when he ditches the bleeps and blips – “When the Lord rings my front door and asks me/What I got to show besides…/The things that just eat away my soul” – his drawl sounding like it’s coming from a mouth with a piece of straw hanging out of it. “Nausea” is the quintessential Beck radio single, consistent with everything else he’s ever put on the airwaves – bass, grooves, funk and hooks are set to lines about pushing a shopping cart through Aztec ruins, smoking lead cigarettes and keeping skulls for pets.

Occasionally lost in this carnival is his talent for songwriting. “New Round” opens soft and creaky to layered vocals: “When the oceans are dark, the heavens are foreboding/A chain link wind is breaking you open/And lessons of day on the blackboard of night/That seem to be erased and the beacon has no light/The eyes of confusion looking for a stray.”

It’s the electronic drone that takes residency at the midway point that brings the album down. By the time the slow groove “Dark Star” bleeds into the cheap, retro beats and, in general, more of the same on “We Dance Alone,” it feels like Beck is either sleepwalking or filling space. “1000BPM” sounds like Captain Beefheart trying to maintain a rhythm from behind a bully pulpit; eventually no amount of synth, bubbles, saws, whistles, vibrations or lyrical Tetris can distract from the monotonous, cosmic loops (the lone star here is the Southwestern, acoustic shit-kicking of “No Complaints”). You will definitely not need to make it through the inexplicable, 10 minute plus, three-part suite that is the closing track “The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton.” It contains an obligatory reprise (“Cell Phone’s Dead”) and eventually a philosophical discussion between Spike Jonze and author Dave Eggers that, equally inexplicable, is not worth sticking around for.

The Information is not Beck’s most complete or consistent work, but simultaneous moments of originality and familiarity make this another tight knot in his neuro-net. In an era content to churn through Art Bruts and Arctic Monkeys while waiting out the adaptation of laws and technology, it seems the shape-shifting super-groups from long ago (the ‘90s) are maintaining the strongest hold. Apparently these savvy, Gen-X burnouts knew what they were doing all along.

The production here is really superb. Nigel Godich (Radiohead’s OK Computer and Kid A) also produced Beck’s less techno-savvy releases (Mutations, Sea Change), and his direction here is masterful in a couple of different areas. He thickens Beck’s nonchalance with echoes and layers, and integrates the vocals directly into the grooves to make them a truly distinct instrument. Not buried in all the inorganic mind-games are some really nice string arrangements – even in places where they wouldn’t seemingly fit (“Cell Phone’s Dead,” “Dark Star”). The singular nature of Beck’s “a lot going on” aesthetic finds ground in a number of quick but effective strokes – a mellow banjo pick coming from your left, some harmonica drifting through, chimes, buzz, or a track closing to analog hiss and the sound of crickets at night (“New Round”).

The album comes with a DVD that contains a video for all 15 songs, however this is more a marketing toss-off than the creative, post-modern irony we’ve come to expect from Beck. These are chop-shop collages, shot and edited in-studio while the album was being recorded. Each video is essentially a frontal shot of Beck with all manner of strangeness going on in the background (weird-looking kung fu guy dancing, weird-looking guy using a giant comb for a guitar, etc.), occasionally toying with either retro or very basic visual effects. It’s not necessary for anyone who already knows what Beck looks like, although if you are playing the album on your laptop it is perhaps a better option than the mesmerizing visualized slideshow of lines, circles and designs that your computer pegs to the beat.

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