Sweeping declarations, to get your attention: not only is this Beck’s best album of the naughties (look, if you don’t believe me about the flaws of Sea Change, at least believe me when I say this is twice the album Guero was), this also contains Nigel Godrich’s best production not on a Radiohead album.
I long suspected that Nigel Godrich was one of the most one-trick producers in the business; he has a love for twinkly “doodads” (thanks, Ryan Dombal) that seems to only work in Radiohead’s universe. His signature production touches on Pavement’s Terror Twilight and Beck’s Sea Change sounded like he was forcing those bands to sound like Radiohead instead of, well, themselves. It was ample proof that maybe the Strokes were onto something when they called his production “soulless” (even though they weren’t one to talk). But on The Information? Because Beck puts emphasis on the postmodernity that got him famous in the first place, Nigel Godrich is forced out of his natural habitat, especially when producing paranoid hip-hop songs and he does surprisingly them well.
Yet, despite that, despite being Beck’s most varied album stylistically and despite housing some of Beck’s best singles, The Information received middling reviews (ie. metacritic gives this a score slightly worse than Guero) and its reputation seems to have diminished overtime (ie. popmatters’s Sean McCarthy ranks this last in Beck’s discography). The reasons are simple. Firstly, while Beck’s rapping was always unhinged nonsense, they were at least cool in their quotability. No “My time is a piece of wax / Falling on a termite / Who’s choking on the splinters” or “In the chain-smoke Kansas flash-dance ass-pants” to be found here. More obviously, the album is long. Beck’s longest, in fact, the only one clocking in at over an hour, and people are just too lazy to go dumpster-diving for the good stuff. The following Modern Guilt is half as long, yes, but it has less than half the rewards.
Let’s talk about the great stuff, first. If you liked Sea Change for its emotional vulnerability and string arrangements, there’s no reason you won’t like “Think I’m In Love,” which does both and puts them over Beck’s most competent groove. The hook, “I think I’m in love but it makes me kind of nervous to say so,” is a more direct line than anything you’ll find on Sea Change. The choruses stand out even more by the slightest of harmonies and a brief flourish of bongos. Meanwhile, if you liked Mellow Gold and Odelay, there’s no reason you won’t like “Cellphone’s Dead,” whose verses are powered by a sample of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” and whose hook sound like they contain a pitch-shifted sample of Herbie Hancock’s whistled “Watermelon Man.” (And speaking of Herbie Hancock, his fellow headhunter, Harvey Mason, plays drums on this album.) The interjecting sassy child saying “One by one, I’ll knock you out” just adds to the song’s overall catchiness.
Those are the album’s greatest draws, songs that aren’t as influential as “Loser” was, but are more accomplished from a songwriting perspective. But speaking of that track, third single “Nausea” mixes blues rock with hip-hop as effortlessly and almost as successfully. Elsewhere, opener “Elevator Music” is the best example of what I wrote earlier with regards to Nigel Godrich’s production; “Strange Apparition” is one of the better Rolling Stones imitations I’ve ever heard and there’s a bassline that sneaks its way onto “Soldier Jane” (starting at the 0:52 mark) that prevents it from being a complete throwaway. Then there’s “New Round,” where Beck gently sings his goodbyes over the warmest bed of backing vocals; if those are his, they’re the hardest he’s ever worked at singing.
The rest? The thick reverb on the sparse drums of “Dark Star” makes it a slog to get through, “1000 bpm” is an annoying hook pretending to be a full-fledged song, “Motorcade” could’ve used a melody or more interesting effects from Godrich (like the title track) and “Movie Theme” is its title (whereas “Elevator Music” wasn’t). Finally, triple-partite closing track, “Horrible Fanfare / Landslide / Exoskeleton,” is an 11-minute waste of time. Whereas the slashes in the title suggests Beck’s most ambitious track ever, all it turns out to be is two half-assed songs (the first two) and one spoken word piece over ambient whose words nor backdrop are interesting (“Exoskeleton”) all strung together by using “Cellphone’s Dead”’s hook. But do you know the beauty of today’s day and age? If you don’t like songs, you can delete them off your Itunes.
Cool cover concept, too.