CD Review of The Information by Beck

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The Information
starstarstarstarno star Label: Interscope
Released: 2006
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Many bands try to alter their sound from album to album, usually with uneven results, annoying (or sometimes shunning) the fans that made the group successful in the first place. Throughout his dozen-year career, Beck has changed genres several times with unparalleled success. During the last eight years, he moved from the non-commercial folk-rock of Mutations to the soul and funk-infused Midnite Vultures. From there, he downshifted into the depressingly beautiful Sea Change before taking his fans on a field trip to the barrio with last year’s terrific, Latin-tinged Guero. Over the years, his followers no longer fear these dramatic changes – instead, they have come to expect and even to embrace them. For this very reason, The Information is surprising not because it is a huge departure from his recent work, but because it isn’t.

Further research reveals that Beck started working on The Information after he finished Sea Change, but before he started working on Guero. Once that project was complete, he returned to The Information, which explains why the opening track, “Elevator Music,” has a Latin beat that would fit right in with most of the material on Guero. He lays down his trademark nonsensical rap until he hits the chorus, which descends beautifully. The next track, “Think I’m In Love,” is carried by a simple, short guitar riff and its sing-a-long chorus, “I think I’m in love/but it makes me kind of nervous to say so.” The strong start continues with “Cellphone’s Dead,” which is built around a funky groove, another schizophrenic Beck rap (this one about the evils of technology, I think), and teenage kid interjecting, “one by one/I’ll knock you out.”

The next track, “Strange Apparition,” might just be the best song on the disc. It opens with a great beat before Beck enters the fray with some surprisingly soulful vocals over a piano riff that could have been written circa 1971 by Elton John. From the opening verse – “Lord, please don’t forsake me/in my Mercedes-Benz/All the riches and the ruins/Now we know how that story ends” – the subject matter is clear: the song is about death and regret. After an awe-inspiring first half, Beck breaks it down in the second, dropping two tortured verses which lead the listener to the end of the song and, ultimately, to the moment of truth. That’s some heavy stuff, man.

The collage of genres continues on the rest of the disc, which is impressive, if not as focused as the first four tracks. Leave it to Beck to turn a song with a title like “Nausea” into a folk-groove rocker. I was singing along to the chorus before I even knew the name of the song. Then he combines the psychedelia of “Dark Star” with an unexpected harmonica interlude, which serves as the proverbial frosting on the spacecake. The folksy guitar of “No Complaints” is reminiscent of Beck’s early work, and is probably the tightest of the songs on the back half of the disc, in an impossibly sloppy sort of way.

The album probably should have ended with the competent title track, which features a spare beat with the occasional odd noise or lyric. But the disc continues with “Movie Theme,” which sounds like a Sea Change castoff, and ends with a spacey ten-minute, three-part medley. Beck raps a bit and there’s some spoken word from some strange woman before the medley hits its high point, “Landslide,” which has such a cool atmosphere that once I’m done writing this, I’m going to load it into Audacity and extract the song out. The medley closes with a three-minute conversation between two men, from parts unknown, about an exoskeleton. It’s about as entertaining as it sounds.

Odd ending aside, The Information is a solid collection of genre-defying tracks from the man who has made a career of defying all sorts of genres. It’s got funk, junk, soul, Latin flavor, big beats, little beats and even a conversation about an exoskeleton. Beck just might be the funkiest white man alive, and The Information will allow him to wear his title belt for at least another year or two. All in all…nice work, Mr. Hansen.

~John Paulsen