CD Review: ...The Information... Fails to Deliver
Beck...s Latest Treads Water, Lacks Creativity
By Andrew Lee
If fortune had been kind, last year’s Guero would’ve been Beck’s much-awaited return to the type of junk-alternative that brought him massive success in the mid-’90s. Instead, the re-teaming of Beck and the Dust Brothers did not result in the unmitigated fan-service many would have hoped for. It wasn’t so long ago that fans were anticipating the next Odelay, but now after the release of Guero’s follow-up, The Information, we’d settle for something on par with Sea Change.
At the outset, it’s hard to point to places where The Information missteps because Beck’s mistakes are those of omission. His faults this time are the continuation (and hopefully completion) of an arc of imaginative decline that reared its head most significantly in Guero’s “E-Pro.” Beck’s awareness of “Devil’s Haircut” as his career’s apex is all-too palpable as “E-Pro” rides a chugging grunge-inflected guitar lick for a seemingly interminable three and a half minutes. The signature riff itself was enjoyable, and the Beastie Boys “What’cha Want” sample was a nice touch, but its endless repetition without variation was just irritating enough to waylay the message Beck likely intended to give: I’m Beck and I’m back.
What Beck didn’t realize was that the rules for him have changed since he made 2002’s Sea Change. Nigel Godrich’s haunting orchestrations in this album dovetailed almost seemlessly with the despondent lyrics, giving the listener an impression of a perpetually setting sun. After the release of an acoustic set of serene and disarming personal breakup songs, Beck’s decision to make Guero a throwback album at a time when his tendencies as a songwriter were moving in another direction was still disarming, but ultimately unsatisfying.
If Guero is an echo of the album that Odelay was, then one would have to describe The Information as a shadow of an echo of Odelay. If you’d like to know exactly how such an idea would manifest itself, just look to “Motorcade.” With parts of its vocal melody noticeably cribbed from “Devil’s Haircut,” “Motorcade” consists of a boring acoustic guitar loop that is indifferently hounded by a swarm of thumb pianos. The Information’s best track, “I Think I’m in Love,” while charming in its outspoken uncertainty, is also undercut by repetition and the fact that its bass-line is a facsimile of the guitar lick from the Beatles’ “Day Tripper.” Unlike Guero, which had the excellent singles “Girl” and “Que Onda Guero,” there’s very little on The Information to provide argument against Beck being past his prime.
Much of the rest of The Information is populated by tracks that contain passable but uninventive beats and hooks filling verses, while the choruses provide small bursts of melodic energy. This wouldn’t be so frustrating if near their end, the songs made some other point than “Help, I’m surrounded by Nigel Godrich’s spacey blips!” By writing lyrics in a once-endearing, but now obsolete vernacular (as Eli Cash would say), and neglecting to culminate his songs in some satisfying fashion, Beck forces Godrich to do the heavy lifting to make the album interesting. Godrich’s atmospherics are appealing enough that there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t be up to such a task, but he’s well-known in the community for having the mettle to bluntly challenge his musicians (including Paul McCartney) to perform to higher standards than they’re used to. Where and how Godrich lost his signature boldness in working with Beck on this album is an unaddressed issue that needs to be resolved if he’s to maintain his status as a top-tier producer.
While Odelay and Guero were produced by the Dust Brothers, Beck has also frequently worked with Nigel Godrich on previous albums, such as Sea Change and Mutations. This cross-referencing of albums by way of their shared producers makes it somewhat easier to keep track of Beck’s catalogue, but it also indicates his uncertainty about what future direction he wants to take. He has not had the same producer for consecutive albums in about a decade, and The Information was Nigel Godrich’s chance to establish himself as Beck’s go-to collaborative partner the way he’s done with Radiohead. With two premier creative talents at the helm, it’s a disappointment that the combination of their efforts is so mediocre.