Beck can be a difficult guy to figure out.
Up until 2005, much of his career was spent making drastically divergent albums. That year’s release, Guero, caught many off guard by uncharacteristically hearkening back to some of his earlier work. The Information continues in a similar vein, cramming a fruitful career of exploration into rapidly shifting yet easily digestible chunks.
After 12 years, it’s not terribly surprising when Beck effortlessly transitions from stream-of-consciousness raps over funk basslines and dirty breakbeats to quietly finger-picked folk ballads. What has changed is that instead of spreading out these stylistic dalliances over the course of individual songs or entire records, he now combines all of them within songs and sections of songs. “Think I’m In Love” is mostly driven by a simple set of bass and drum loops that wouldn’t sound out of place on Odelay. During the choruses, an effected electric guitar and vocal harmonies change the feel, hinting at the straightforward, summery hooks that crept in inconspicuously on Guero. Then, a whole slew of acoustic instruments take over for the bridge, evoking some of the less bluesy material from Mutations. The strings in the latter half of the song are also reminiscent of those on Sea Change’s “Paper Tiger.” Most of The Information has this comprehensive feel, as if everything up to this point was an experiment, the results of which he is just now putting into practice.
With Nigel Godrich at the helm, the trashy funk/hip-hop tracks like “Elevator Music” and “Dark Star” are more subdued, and the acoustic guitar-based songs like “Motorcade” are more groove-oriented with myriad electronic embellishments. Varying moods from track to track become increasingly difficult to differentiate as Beck’s many musical interests blend together. At times, the overall consistency can be numbing, as the relentless depth of the arrangements can make for a cloudy picture of songs like the title track and “Strange Apparition.”
The Information hits a particularly beautiful stride right around its midpoint, from standout “Nausea” through its slightly more somber counterpart “No Complaints.” “New Round” is an excellent contrast from the track ahead of it, shimmering with quietude and a reassuringly simple melody. The sample that counts off the opener is reprised at the conclusion of “Dark Star,” leading into what would be side 2 with the Adidas-tracksuit-and-Kangol-clad “We Dance Alone.”
Beck’s lyrics still tend toward extremely disjointed narratives, which are usually more in service of rhythm and phrasing than anything else. In spite of this, there is a definite tone to the album. With references to technology, confusion, and anxiety scattered throughout, the record’s title-spawning lines, “The information is ravenous,” and “When the information comes, we’ll know what we’re made from” can be safely interpreted as less than optimistic.
Some might contend that the constantly-conglomerated sonic patchwork makes for less immediately exciting results than some of his more scattershot offerings. After all, The Information is, much like its predecessor, a very safe Beck album. Although he does not explore a wealth of new territory here, the different approach he’s taken certainly makes it worth the trip, familiar though the ideas may be. Plus, it comes with stickers, and that’s just cool.
– William Cremin