[4 October 2006]
The Information, Beck’s ninth studio album and third with producer Nigel Godrich, is, in some respects, an overload of 21st century post-post-modernism, a rhythmic bulk of terrestrial instrumentation and space-junk miscellanea that makes giddy revelry out of its own contradictions. There’s the funky rumpus “Elevator Music”, a one-chord drone living a checkered dance floor’s Saturday-night dream, and then there’s real elevator music, “Movie Theme”, a slo-mo hallucination of transcendence under sheets of synthetic soft rock. A piano hook straddles a rift between ‘70 Stones and Abba in “Strange Apparition”; Love-worshipping chamber pop haunts the atmosphere of “Think I’m in Love”; “Motorcade” teases out the genesis of a DFA-inspired descent into fuzzed-out repetition; and Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze make cameo appearances at the tail-end of the ten-minute closing track, “The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton”, discussing illuminated manuscripts, aversions to change, and space travel while backwards sound effects manufacture a Kubrickian air of skittish distrust.
Furthermore, the record is speckled with architectural inconsistencies that declassify each U-turn into new territories of sub-genre exploitation: pop hooks sabotage the funk jams, krautrock sprouts from old-school rap cadences, blues riffs find themselves surrounded by an infestation of surly catcalls. It’s these concurrent oddities, absurdities, and stylistically-ignorant endearments, rifling through the album’s gooey and often cavernous headspace, that cause The Information to congeal with unexpected ease. Perhaps the absence of this kind of collective subtext is what elicited the routine condemnation of last year’s similarly eclectic Guero, which lacked an absurdist thread. Though it was unfairly criticized by some, Guero will most likely be seen, in hindsight, as a safer warm-up to The Information‘s wildly successful risk-taking. It’s held together by its space-age hip-hop affectations, by its neo-psychedelic flashbacks, by its underlying acknowledgement that each “fun” element has some kind of consequence embedded on its flipside. This may not sound like music of the future, but it’s the kind of music that only the future could possibly make.
It’s interesting to note, then, that The Information was recorded over the course of three years—recording even began before the production of Guero—interesting, because the album doesn’t suffer from any kind of identity crisis. Far from it, in fact: it’s Beck’s most infectious and adventurous mess of irrelevance since 1999’s criminally underrated Midnite Vultures. Godrich has historically overseen Beck’s “serious” albums—both Mutations (1998) and Sea Change (2002) serve as proof that beneath his cut-and-paste modernist veneer, Beck is a singer-songwriter capable of great economy—so it’s worth noting his involvement on such an unusual project. The melancholy subconscious that Beck and Godrich have made a habit of mining figures into The Information‘s crawlspaces. “Soldier Jane”, for example, traps ambient-addled pensiveness inside the confines of a driving backbeat; “Dark Star” may communicate in tongue-tripping rap-speak (“Disappointment condition / A perfunctory prescription / Of an indigent mindset / A belligerent silence”), but its Stevie Wonder-esque keyboard groove is all overcast moodswing, doubled over with stomach-churning heaves from the David Campbell-arranged string section. The album begins with a call-up to party down—“Tell me, what’s wrong with a little grind and bump / When the stereos erupt with the kick-drum punch?”—but even party time is eventually, frequently, interrupted by more pressing concerns. Evidence: Two tracks later, in “Cellphone’s Dead”, Beck implores, “make a kick drum sound like an S.O.S.”—effectively altering the significance of that crucial piece of instrumentation.
While its sound and style is light years removed from contemporary hip-hop (the two do, however, share a reverence for space), The Information features Beck’s stream-of-consciousness MC persona on roughly half its tracks. His raps are no longer mixed out in front of the music like Odelay (1996) and such; they sink into each track as a textural whole, shadowy and suspect, less preoccupied with boasting and more a running commentary of mumbled, polyrhythmic code. Beck’s voice has been weathered by records like Sea Change, and the juxtaposition of his marbled-mouthed, slacker-in-twilight drawl with percussive, hip-hop-aspiring demands makes for arresting listening. Even better that this distinction can be glimpsed now, ten years after Beck’s neo-hipster shtick was a pinnacle of mid-‘90s pop fashion—his motley convergence of disparate cultural reference points can occur outside oppressive pop-cultural barometers.
Nonetheless, The Information draws attention to itself, most notably through its physical presentation. How it is meant to be experienced is both enhanced and complicated by its design and accoutrements. The cover-art concept serves as a reminder, to digital-age music consumers, that albums can still be multi-sensory experiences: the blank four-panel insert (printed as banal graph paper) is meant to be decorated using the provided sheets of stickers. This highly unorthodox design, a graduation from Sea Change‘s multiple-cover model, recasts the listener as an implicit force in sleeve construction, and aims to manufacture hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unique cover-art creations. Part of the cover art’s success (beyond its sheer aesthetic and conceptual excellence) is how its function combats the digital-downloading community’s indifference towards an album’s tangibility.
The accompanying DVD, which contains a video for each of the album’s tracks, is a less successful supplement. The concept has worked in the past (most notably with Super Furry Animals’ DVD version of 2001’s Rings Around the World), but the videos here are a little too incidental and tedious to mean anything. Each lo-fi/low-concept video uses the corresponding song as a backdrop for ridiculous poses and camera-hamming; instead of multiple visual interpretations from a variety of vantage points, the DVD presents Beck’s face in the foreground and a rotating cast of friends and musicians (dressed as astronauts, bears, karate champions, etc.) frolicking behind him. It’s an example of home-movie indulgence, not a re-imagining of art’s multimedia possibilities, a slice of sideshow entertainment guaranteed to entertain only those involved in its making.
All this new-media paraphernalia just overcomplicates an already complicated piece of work, so don’t let it interfere with the album itself, which, even at a little over 60 minutes, is impeccably sequenced and incessantly engaging. “The Information”—capital T, capital I—implies the goods dissemination-wise, the down-low made official, a definitive assessment of where it’s at, dig? Fortunately, as an album like this makes all too obvious, it’s never that easy.