Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.
Beck Hansen must really hate surfing: seven albums and he has never allowed himself to coast. Even at his most conventional, the music he makes is still better thought out than that of the average musician. Part of the appeal of Beck’s career is that his music is as diverse and inspired as he is. He has worked with several producers in his career, occasionally revisiting some of them, but Beck is recognized for constantly being uncomfortable in a single genre. Odelay works because of the Dust Brothers’ eclectic production scale and Beck’s resilience to being pegged down; the album features straight hip-hop, acid rock, electronica and pretty much every last trick the Dust Brothers shook out of the bag. Since that album Beck has been a man of many faces: the prima donna band leader on the funk tinged Midnite Vultures, the devastated paramour of 2002’s Sea Change and an observer of days past on his spiritual sequel to Odelay, 2004’s Guero.
Beck’s music is constantly on edge, jumping from genre to genre and style to style, and proving that restlessness on records can act as a catalyst for a stroke of genius. His latest album, 2008’s Modern Guilt, is built around producer Danger Mouse’s shared love of psychedelic 1960s rock and his hip-hop sensibilities, and sounds like the work of a man hell bent on not doing the same thing twice. If you were paying attention, you’d be inclined to think Beck spent four years silent. You’d be wrong, and that is the tragedy.
In 2006, Beck re-teamed with producer Nigel Godrich, who produced Sea Change, to create The Information. Beck has claimed that the original intent was to make something akin to a traditional hip-hop record, but that the recording sessions just got too painful and expansive. The Information was plagued with writer’s block and the strain of constant recording. Beck felt it was spiraling out of control, and decided to fully enlist Godrich, who originally worked as a mixer on Guero, as the producer to help reign in the sound. The album was eventually released to positive reviews but disappointingly moderate sales. Effectively it was seen as another good album by Beck, but nothing as noteworthy or eclectic as Odelay or Sea Change.
Still, The Information is a great album; daresay a fantastic one, even if an initial reaction would categorize it as “more of the same.” Although it contains a presiding sensibility of hip-hop and electronica, the album still doesn’t appear to sound as revolutionary as anything from Beck’s previous work. But The Information is very much a watershed record between Beck’s sonic interests and bridges the gap from the eclectic affair of Guero and the tighter focused, soul-softened production of Modern Guilt. As difficult as it is to accept, Beck can definitely be experimental AND popular when he doesn’t stray from what he knows. What is successful about The Information is that Beck and Godrich prove to be a potent collaboration, with Godrich bringing out the stranger side of Beck that made Odelay so successful, and that the songwriting is some of his strongest and most exploratory.
Songs like “1000BPM” succeed as electronic experimentation, and would also not be out of place on Guero or even Odelay. This particular song is probably the closest to a traditional electronic song Beck has come, featuring digitally warped vocals and a synth and percussion mixture that sounds like the track is about to shut down; it’s one of the standout tracks on this album and one that counters the argument against variety. “We Dance Alone” is Beck doing dance music, which is usually seen as repetitive and bland, and turning it into a well-crafted musical longing. The song features haunting, washed out vocals that invoke the spirit of music blaring from a cheap club speaker while pheromones and conversation compete for the energy in the room. “Nausea,” the album’s first single, is a wonderful piece of mid-tempo, percussion-driven pop and as memorable a single as Beck has released in the last decade. The video and performance, featuring an adorable puppet band, ranks among the strangest and inspired things Beck has ever done. The song itself relies heavily on a lower register, which increases steadily, and counteracts Beck’s vocals, which are halfway between an exclamation and a full-on shout. This song became the prototype for one of the most memorable songs on Modern Guilt, “Youthless,” albeit in a reduced tempo. Traces of this effect are even heard in that effort’s title track. Although it has been argued that the sound of The Information is not too different from that of Guero, it contains a lot of the elements that would later be fully realized on Modern Guilt.
Part of what makes this album so integral is its “predictive” sound. Beck flirts with more conventional and guitar-driven sounds on songs like “New Round” and “Think I’m In Love,” while the proto-hip-hop stylings of “Cellphone’s Dead” and “Elevator Music” show his love of the music from the streets of East L.A. and his sensibilities for modern popular music, with a hint of synthesizers and electronic instruments. “Cellphone’s Dead” features an amusing refrain of a woman supplementing the verses with the phrase, “One by one/ I’ll knock you out,” which is the closest to braggadocio and swagger you get on this album. It’s all supplemented by a mid-tempo, low register bass line and unobtrusive synth refrains.
Beck ends the album with a 10 minute dissertation on all things musical. “The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton” utilizes the intellect of Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers to answer the question: “What would the ultimate record that ever could possibly be made sound like?” Even in this closing track, Beck attempts to challenge himself, while the instrumentals expand and contract, capturing the nature of the discussion. The song is cacophonous with the front side instruments, such as the synths, but the rhythm and percussion rein it in.
The Information proves that Beck could phone it in for the rest of his career making repetitive yet unconventional albums. Beck, growing frustrated with the expansiveness and aloofness of his three years of recording, realigned his musical sensibilities and recorded an album that worked both as an exemplary usage of a unique sound as well as a progressive look at what music he would make just two years later. Though the album was overlooked for not being “different enough,” it now shows that Beck was onto something, and that the difference would soon be evident. The Information is proof that what appears to be by the book instead became a whole new musical chapter for Beck Hansen.
by Rafael Gaitan