Beck began work on 2006's The Information after Sea Change but before he reunited with the Dust Brothers for 2005's Guero, eventually finishing the album after Guero was generally acclaimed as a return to Odelay form. So, it shouldn't come as a great surprise that The Information falls somewhere between those two records, at least on sonic terms. Musically, it's certainly a kindred spirit to Guero, meaning that it hearkens back to the collage of loose-limbed, quirky white-boy funk-rock and rap that brought Beck fame at the peak of the alt-rock revolution, with hints of the psychedelia of Mutations and the folk-rock that was the basis for Sea Change. Since this is a Nigel Godrich production, it's meticulous and precise even when it wants to give the illusion of spontaneity, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, since it also pulls the album into focus, something that the generally fine Guero could have used. Guero had many strengths, but its biggest weakness was the general sense that it was unfinished, a suspicion fostered by its endless issues in deluxe editions and remixes. Beck embraced these changes, most extravagantly on the cover of Wired, where he was hailing the future of the album, which would now no longer be seen as finished: it would be a project that covered a certain amount of time, the artist would package it one way, then listeners would offer their own spin. That is precisely what Guero turned out to be, so it would have made sense that The Information would run further down that field, particularly because it has a design-your-own-art for its cover and is supplemented by a DVD filled with quick-n-dirty videos for each of its songs. But Beck isn't so easily pigeonholed: as it turns out, The Information is far more of a proper album than Guero, coming fully equipped with recurring themes and motifs, feeling every bit the concept album Sea Change was. Credit might go partially to his collaboration with Godrich -- who is nothing if not a taskmaster, helping to sharpen and focus erratic talents like Paul McCartney and Stephen Malkmus (for good in the former, not as good in the latter) -- but this also feels like the work of a refocused Beck, who shook off the cobwebs by reuniting with the Dust Brothers, thereby getting his "return to Odelay form" notices out of the way, and then getting down to the real work here on The Information, as he tackles the hyper-saturated info-world of the new millennium here.
If it initially seems like surprises are in short supply on The Information -- even when the tracks take a left turn, it doesn't feel like Beck and Godrich are wandering off the map -- the craft is strong and assured, and closer listens reveal the depth of the detail within the album, whether it's in the construction of the production or how those productions illuminate Beck's themes. Ever the obscurist, Beck's meanings aren't always crystal clear, which is no doubt deliberate, but his overall intent is easier to ascertain, especially when "Cellphone's Dead" juts up against "Nausea." There's a greater sense of craft here, and while craft isn't necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Beck, it's what happens when an eccentric sticks around for over a decade: he turns pro. He's done his exploring and now he's learning how to apply what he's discovered. While this may have the inevitable side effect of making his music a little less bracing and exciting, at least on first listen -- and that's especially true when he's in his pop chameleon mode as he is here, since it often seemed like his collages were quickly thrown together instead of immaculately assembled as they are here -- it nevertheless makes for a well-constructed, intriguing, and satisfying album, which The Information assuredly is. Upon first listen, it might seem to slide by a little bit on texture and sound instead of song, but that doesn't necessarily mean it feels even as groove-oriented and hip-hop-driven as Guero (let alone Midnite Vultures), despite the fact that many of the best tracks are built on muscular, intricate rhythms, like the dense, paranoid "Nausea" or the opening fanfare of "Elevator Music." But those further listens -- something that a neo-concept album like this demands anyway -- reveal the complexity within the productions, and how Beck is bridging the two sides of his personality, finding a common ground between his folk roots and art rock sides. All those little details give each cut a dramatic flow, and as the cuts pile up, they all add up to something. Like a picture where you have to stare intently to find the hidden item buried in a seas of colored dots, it can be far too easy on The Information to look at the individual dots and not see the big picture -- but at least here the dots are interesting in and of themselves. And if you give it time, The Information eventually reveals itself as Beck's tightest, most purposeful album yet.
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