iven Beck’s link to Scientology, you’d be excused for wrinkling your brow when you found out his next record was insinuatingly titled “The Information.” For a group that goes out of its way to keep light from shedding on any of the elementary tenets of their curious ‘religion,’ it seemed apropos for Beck, at least on record the group’s most playfully odd celebrity to issue such a shady WTF. Long an artist entangled and tripped up by so many contexts and genre signifiers as to be long since free of any, it was difficult to imagine Beck giving us such an open-handed glimpse--free of metaphor, flippant ramshackle beat poesie, or hip-check wordplay--into his spirituality, especially one already so fiercely topical. More than that, the notion of Beck subsiding into the giddy L. Ron Hubbard promotion of celebs like Tom Cruise and John Travolta was, well, nauseating. I mean, this is our Beck, more than ten years ours and Tom Cruise is just a nutty fucker. For better or worse then, The Information is both exactly what you feared it might be and also a document of some of Beck’s best groove-based material since Midnite Vultures.
With Nigel Godrich in the booth for the third time, Beck spent over three years crafting the songs for The Information. As such, it’s not surprising that its musical bedding is decidedly uneven. Gone, almost completely, is the love-nausea of Sea Change. In its stead, Beck goes back to the mangled, junkyard pop of his youth, mixing broken-porch funk and beat-patterned shout-alongs into an album far more groove-oriented than even the underrated Guero. These songs, almost across the board, are bound to their bottom, as Beck uses his ear for antique nouveau to create the sort of astonishingly simple but hypnotic rhythms that he’s been patterning since Mellow Gold. “Elevator Music” and “No Complaints” fume with smokehouse funk, crashing, churning bits of Odelay-themed bass-pop. “Nausea” is perfectly titled: a woozy, jungle-tangle of clanging cow-bells and stiff bass amidst monkey-voices and a cloying multi-tracked chorus, while “Think I’m In Love” finds Beck shyly reacquainting himself with love over a thicket of pianos, strings, and a paperbag writer’s bass. “New Round”’s frail beauty is a shot in the arm for Beck here; acoustic guitars flicker with trampled heart tones and a subtle drum pattern-knowingly nudged to the back—as he hums fractured couplets about chain-link winds and blackboard nights.
More than with either Mutations or Sea Change, you can hear Godrich’s rich instrumental layering beneath the rhythms. A perfect headphone album, strings, shards of voice and singing, simmering static, harmonica, synths, and bell-toned electronics seem to almost collapse into their places. Sometimes, these deep interludes and bridges distract from a song’s central melody however (as on the otherwise fantastic Headhunters-jive of “Cell Phone’s Dead”) and threaten its composition, but typically they serve instead as interesting flourishes.
Still, at fifteen tracks and over an hour, perhaps Beck needed a stiff editor more than the comfort of a familiar producer. Even given his notoriety for pastiche, each of his best albums formed a remarkably cohesive whole; he tried on different styles between records, but within each one, the tracks held together quite well. Much of The Information lives out its three-year birth in song-sketches and productions that simply don’t settle well with the rest of the album. The Beggars Banquet-era gilded piano stomp of “Strange Apparition” would have made a great b-side but feels force-fed to its neighbors, and “Soldier Jane” fails to progress beyond its staid drum pattern. With “Dark Star,” Beck amazon tracks the Headhunters again, but compounded by harmonica breakdowns and what sounds like a leftover string section from Sea Change, it’s garbled and confused. “1000BPM”’ is likewise cluttered and tuneless, a second-cousin to the jarring studio-mongering of “Sweet Sunshine” or “High 5 (Rock the Catskills).”
Aside these musical missteps though, Beck’s queer mystical refrains ultimately seem far more puzzling. And this is where you’ll have to decide just how much WTF you’ll swallow from your pop stars. One can’t help but feel Scientology’s extraterrestrial pull beneath lines like “When the information comes/we’ll know whom we’re made from” (the title track) or “ Looking for the ladder in the stratosphere/so I can be happy/let my bones melt away” (“Movie Theme”). Old Xenu himself, maybe even his entire Galactic Confederacy, is shadowed in the lines; certainly, in any case, there’s plenty of what Scientologists might refer to as ‘space opera’ to be heard. Closer “Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton,” in fact, is a squatter’s symphony of such allusions. After a shredded tape reel with snippets of both “Elevator Music” and “Cellphone’s Dead” and a toxic expanse of sound passages and reinventions, comes a spoken word outro between Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers (?!!?) supposedly about how the best album ever made might sound: “it has to tell you how to live/it is an instruction guide/subtle, it doesn’t push/it nudges, it entices, or it seduces/it has to encompass the whole world/everything that has been, is and will be/and could take it into space/and that’s why you need a spaceship/cause that’s ultimately what space travel was all about.” But maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe, with The Information, Beck’s just talking about spaceships. You know, like the rest of us. . .