One of the hardest things to do in contemporary pop music is to create a unique sound while maintaining a respect for the past. Over the past 10 years, no one has done that better than Beck. In his mid-’90s heyday with albums like Mellow Gold and Odelay, Beck breezed through genres with a swagger while maintaining his slacker hipster attitude. Yet one of the problems Beck has run into recently is that his unpredictability has paradoxically become predictable.
Perhaps in response to that problem, Beck’s 2005 Guero was more of a collection of past themes with a slightly more electronic edge. The result was his safest album yet, as well as one of his flattest sounding ones. However, with more confidence after testing the techno waters through Guero and the preceding Gameboy Variations EP, Beck has come out with his most electronica-charged album to date with The Information.
Despite being unquestionably Beck-sounding, The Information feels more in line with recent crossovers like St. Elsewhere and Demon Days than past Beck albums. Although Beck was an obvious predecessor to Gnarls Barkley and Gorlliaz, The Information doesn’t hold up as well when compared to DJ Danger Mouse’s work. That doesn’t mean he is poorly prepared; in fact Beck is working with the only producer who can claim to be more accomplished in rock-techno fusion with Nigel Godrich (of Kid A fame). While the album starts off with one of the most exciting collections of songs Beck has come up with in years, the album ultimately can’t maintain its momentum and collapses by its second half.
Beck has always been a master of the 1-2 punch, but the first two tracks on The Information provide possibly his best opening to an album yet. The electro-pop of “Elevator Music” shows right away that he is full of confidence that he lacked on Guero. Batting second, “Cellphone’s Dead” sees Beck return to his now-standard eccentric rapping. However dated Beck’s rapping may sound, the glorious stir-fry of sound in the background is among the smartest and most satisfyingly produced songs of the past decade.
“Strange Apparition” feels a little more like a straightforward rock song, but Godrich gives the track a technological feel not apparent from the music itself. “Nausea”, meanwhile, is the only song on the album that could feel on place on Odelay with its melody and instrumentation, but the tempo is faster and the production deeper than anything found on past Beck releases.
Had The Information ended after the first six tracks, it would have been a damn good EP, as good as Odelay filtered through a decade’s worth of mash-ups and electronic music. Unfortunately, the album hits a snag with “New Round”, which it never fully recovers from afterwards.
The bland, uninspired track is quite embarrassing, since it is so far behind what had come previously. Another dud, “Black Star”, follows, where Beck seems overly dependent on Godrich’s engineering. As a result, Beck’s disinterested vocals hamper a track that wasn’t that good in the first place.
The album picks up again slightly with “We Dance Alone”, a slow, subtle synth crooner that is one of the most deceptively brilliant songs on the album. “No Complaints” shows promise, but never gets off its feet, a fault that tips the tide of mediocrity for this album. Even with the giddy 10-minute closing track, where Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers discuss what the perfect album would be, the album admirably tries, but ultimately fails, to achieve the depth and impact it seeks.
The packaging of The Information equally reflects the lofty but unfulfilled ambition of the album. In attempt to make the actual contents of a CD relevant again, Beck has packed a bonus DVD with each album at no extra price—which would be nice, if the DVD included more than low-budget studio wankery in its weird videos for each song on the album. He also includes a sticker collection with the packaging to put on the front of the album. It’s nothing more than a gimmick—but then again, how many middle schoolers do you imagine will make the placement of stickers as sexually explicit as possible?
Despite the albums flaws, I can’t blame Beck for trying, and it’s not even all that disappointing. With all the rehashed rock and games of name-that-reference going on in music today, it’s at least inspiring to see someone at least try to do something new. The beauty of Beck, however, is that while nearly all his albums disappoint at first, they improve with each listening. While it’s no St. Elsewhere, Beck’s done enough over the last decade to earn my trust in the ultimate worthiness in The Information, and it’s nice to see he’s gotten his priorities straight once again.