BECK: THE INFORMATION (2006)
1) Elevator Music; 2) Think I'm In Love; 3) Cellphone's Dead; 4) Strange Apparition; 5) Soldier Jane; 6) Nausea; 7) New Round; 8) Dark Star; 9) We Dance Alone; 10) No Complaints; 11) 1000bpm; 12) Motorcade; 13) The Information; 14) Movie Theme; 15) The Horrible Fanfare / Landslide / Exoskeleton.
Imagine yourself having lived through several years of your life, regularly exchanging a pair of bright yellow socks with blue stripes and a pair of bright red socks with white stripes to work. At first it's a shock, then it's a news item, then it becomes a running gag, and finally everyone calms down and get bored. What is the next logical step to take? Right-o — one fine day, you come to work, one foot clad in a yellow sock with blue stripes and the other one, nicely contrasting with the former, in a red sock with white stripes. All of a sudden, life has taken an interesting turn — struck out an exciting chord once again.
The analogy may be crudely generated and even more crudely stated, but it does convey my first impressions of The Information, an album that Beck, in accordance with the schedule, had himself produced by Nigel Godrich, but which also, completely out of schedule, sounds like it really should have been produced by The Dust Brothers. For those of us who find it fun to derail the karmic wheel from time to time, this should sound exciting from the get-go — for those who think that some combinations should rather be left alone, The Information may become one of the most serious disappointments in Beck's career.
Personally, I think it works in more ways in which it fails. First, it is not to be taken too seriously — how, in fact, can you take seriously an album whose very first track is already called ʽElevator Musicʼ? And if that is not enough, how about a direct clue from Mr. B. in person: "Put the elevator music on / Put me back where I belong". Of course, most of his lyrics are nonsense, but every once in a while there is a hidden instruction out there, and it is our job to find it. Besides, the track does sound a little like elevator music — or, rather, like the musical imitation of an elevator in flight, with cogs grinding, ropes pulling, and little bells and whistles ringing and clanging as the floors swoosh past you in a typically Godrich-esque cosmic buzz.
The psychedelic strings, once again arranged by Dad, are back with a vengeance on ʽThink I'm In Loveʼ, but other than that, the song has nothing to do with Sea Change — it is fast, tight, poppy, pinned to a loud, swirling blues bassline (think Bob Dylan's ʽAs I Went Out One Morningʼ, if you need an earlier analogy), and dedicated to all the confused mindsets out there: "I think I'm in love / But it makes me kinda nervous to say so" is just another generation's way of saying "I think it's love, but I can't explain", right? They just got a little more sophisticated about it, but plus ça change... well, it's just a thought, not a criticism, the song is fun.
From then on, it all falls together in a synthesis that really combines the madness of Midnite Vultures with the dark sultriness of Sea Change in a way that Guero never attempted to. Tracks like ʽCellphone's Deadʼ, ʽNauseaʼ, and ʽ1000bpmʼ are formally «dance-oriented» (or just call it «body muzak» or something), but their emotional spectrum runs from philosophical gloominess to cynical anger — in fact, ʽNauseaʼ starts out with a stern acoustic bass rhythm that used to be a typical fixture of that highly underrated band, Morphine, and they were pretty much the epitome of late night gloominess in the 1990s. Yes, you may use this stuff as club fodder, but unless the rhythm is the only thing your ears pick up, pretty soon you will start scratching your head and wondering just what the heck is up — the party spirit is getting fucked over.
Of course, Beck has never been a particularly happy guy, but still, remember ʽDevil's Haircutʼ? Triumphant brass fanfares and all? Forget it. Every single song on here is morose, every single song captures that turn-of-the-century depression spirit, every single song is about some sort of bad shit or other, explicitly or implicitly, and Godrich has his hands full procuring the shit in question and stuffing it in all the empty slots between the beats (that's why it's «bad cosmic shit», not simple «bad shit»). ʽDark Starʼ, for instance, whose hip-hop essence is honestly hung out in space — Beck plays the space cowboy with some harmonica blowing as well, but it is the phased strings and keyboard arrangements that give the song its final flavor.
One possible problem with The Information is that it is overlong. This especially concerns its last track, a medley of melodies that run through a hip-hop section, another one that almost approaches Aphex Twin-style IDM, and a final ambient piece — but even without this somewhat bloated and not too memorable ten-minute monster, the tunes share the issue of Sea Change (too much «sameyness» of the mood) without sharing its redemption factor — depth and power of raw emotion. On Sea Change, there was a feeling the man wasn't just dicking around, but was actually saying something he needed to say and wanted us to hear; The Information never really seems to know whether it is making a point or is merely using a valid point (such as «this world is really coming to a sticky end») to provide Beck with a pretext for messing around.
In other words, ʽDark Starʼ is formally dark, but is it, say, ʽGimme Shelterʼ-dark? Cool — yes, by all means. The band, and Godrich in person, do a damn fine job fleshing out all the beats and all the beeps and bloops and gimmicks, and Beck consistently finds the right vocal hooks for most of the songs (just getting a little tired, so it seems, towards the end, or maybe it's just me getting tired). It's just that, unlike Sea Change, The Information does not have me convinced that the darkness actually expands beyond the theatrical. But that's all right. It doesn't necessarily have to. Besides, look at Radiohead — their darkness seemingly expands beyond the theatrical, and has it made a goddamn difference? Nah. Thumbs up, of course — if only for the simple, but effective producer-swapping trick that had us all fooled, and helped keep up the freshness of approach for an extra while. Oh, and good songs, too.
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