Music You May Have Missed
Beck: The Information
by Greg Gondek
Often, certain extraordinary albums suffer a fate common in contemporary music consumption: being underplayed and underappreciated, relatively forgotten upon release and long afterward. Beck’s The Information is one such album, a cornerstone record in his career that didn’t quite garner the credit it deserved, despite receiving generally positive reviews in 2006.
Beck released The Information, his tenth studio album, about a year and half after 2005’s Guero, which had re-situated him in the public consciousness. Critics often praise Guero as a comeback album; Beck returned to his eclectic, outrageous style of blending samples and original material into genre-blurring musical collages. Guero also cast him as older and more introspective than his exuberant, zany persona on Odelay. And hit songs like “E-Pro” and “Girl” proved his capacity to once again appeal to a wide audience, which figures into The Information’s peculiar position in Beck’s career. Because of Guero’s status as revival record, The Information would have to be some new, uncharted territory for the musical chameleon. And it is, but isn’t at the same time.
While the album’s count in, “One, two, you know what to do,” sounds like a simple snippet from a band rehearsal, the sheer force and weight of the drums and the bass’s funky pulse signals that The Information is very much a polished, studio-recorded product. The band establishes an infectious groove within three seconds—true also in most of the heavier, rhythmic-centric tracks off the album. Beck’s opening line, “I’m uptight, super-gutted out the frame,” reflects and casts a shadow on the shreds of anxiety that pervade the record.
The Information marks the third major release in which Nigel Godrich (the celebrated Radiohead producer) teamed up with Beck in the studio. Discussing the process of the album’s creation, Beck has said he and Godrich wanted to make a hip-hop record, which they successfully do. Godrich’s presence on the record is felt, as Beck straddles the line between straightforward raps and his acoustic, folkier tendencies. The album exists as a hip-hop record, but not entirely; The Information finds a wonderful middle ground, fusing hip-hop and acoustic folk into some of the best material Beck has released.
While the processed beats, percussion, and bass lines burst forth, acoustic guitars and airy vocals creep around every corner, softening the edges, breathing a melancholic cloud against the electronic aggression. As Beck raps relentlessly on “Elevator Music,” the chorus breaks down into a strummy, catchy tune, still maintaining the groove of the song. The lonely, descending piano line on the track’s outro draws the song to a haunting close amidst electronic blips, telephone keypads, and traces of spoken samples, moving in and out as the song unravels.
The Information’s bleak, troubled tone is why the album maintains a subtle, powerful contrast from Beck’s older catalogue. Even the album’s artwork of simple, unaltered white graph paper suggests a cold, calculated mood. Never before has Beck so consistently rapped on an album with remarkable directness, rather than speaking in clusters of images, catchy rhymes, and inside jokes. A track like “Dark Star” shows Beck outpouring rapid-fire rhymes over a sexy, moody synth bass-line, with strongly political undertones: “Sterilized egos, delirium sequels, punctured by the arrows of American eagles.” A stark and heavy string section, which harkens back to the Sea Change gem “Paper Tiger,” swirls inside the groove, piercing the cool, laidback atmosphere with terror, though Beck eases the tension briefly with an oddly fitting harmonica solo that battles the bass for the spotlight. Blues music, as well as general blues sentiments, pervades every avenue of Beck’s musical language. The harmonica break in “Dark Star” further affirms how integral the genre is to Beck’s oeuvre.
While many tracks wallow in dark shadows, both musically and lyrically, acoustic driven tracks set The Information in balance. “Strange Apparition” jangles and rattles like a Rolling Stones hit. “No Complaints” bounces along with minimalist leisure. In the same way The Information straddles the line between hip-hop and folk, the album also dances between perfectly polished and easefully lo-fi, producing a record that sounds both manicured and thrown together. On the lullaby-like “New Round,” the drums and percussion hold a tight, understated rhythm against Beck’s deliberate and relaxed vocals, while ringing pianos, synthesizers, and electronic noises fade in and out in chaos. Such a track maintains the sensation of being both meticulously arranged and experimental, the driving force behind The Information.
Among the album’s most compelling tracks are ones in which Godrich shares a co-writing credit. “Soldier Jane” and “Movie Theme” utilize hypnotic, luscious synthesizer pads that sound more cleansing than claustrophobic and computerized. “Motorcade” stands out as one of the most mesmerizing songs Beck has ever constructed. A simple, Spanish-flavored guitar riff lays the groundwork; processed beats click and buzz, dominating the track’s dynamics. The song encompasses both a sense of lifelessness and of frenetic madness, while Beck gently soothes, “We’re all pushing up the tin can mountain top.” The song maintains its chilling, bipolar personality for just over four minutes.
Considering the expectation that Beck will tackle every musical style, The Information deserves more credit because it is subtle and dark, in a less obvious way than 2002’s Sea Change. At this point, Beck’s decisions to work with Godrich prove fruitful. The Information is an album that grows with each listen, revealing incredible nuances that bind the album cohesively. And while many may not regard the record as one of Beck’s bravest moves, it’s one of his most honest.