I’ll admit it— I was hooked on Beck from the start. When I first spun my copy of “Loser” it was like nothing I heard before. Beck was clearly ahead of his time. He had the unique characterization of being a reflection of his listening audience, a generation raised on west coast rappers and northwest rockers. He was the original funky white boy king, so weird that he defies the definition of cool. This led to Beck being labeled the spokesman for the slacker generation, a tag that he resisted and rebelled against.
Beck then confused his new audience, who expected a lyrical sequel to his world wide smash single “Loser,” by releasing two lo-fi folk albums, Stereopathtic Soul Manure and One Foot in the Grave. The album that truly opened up his innovative sound was Odelay. Prolific production duo The Dust Brothers had constructed the ideal supersonic audio collages of rock, country and rap, which helped thrust Beck into superstardom. Beck would then go on to release a major label laid back acoustic album, Mutations, helmed by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. It was a trippy, melancholy affair that once again threw off the audience waiting for the proper funky follow-up to Odelay. Beck then attempted to make a Prince like soul-fied funk record, Midnite Vultures that I could never get into—and Lord knows I tried. Vultures was a bit too experimental to score with his fans.
This leads us to my favorite Beck album, Sea Change. Once again produced by Nigel Godrich, this album reflected the pain in Beck’s break-up with his then long time girlfriend. Apparently as legend tells it, Beck and his ex shared an e-mail account. Beck came home one day to found an e-mail from his soon to be former girlfriend professing her love for another man. Ouch, what a way to find out your loved one is cheating on you—by e-mail. The result of this failed relationship was this wonderfully somber, yet beautiful album.
Sea Change was one of the many soundtracks to my life during my first year living in New Orleans. I was alone and aching from a break-up from a long time girlfriend just like Beck. And Beck sung so eloquently, as if he was singing my own blues, with his rootsy songs of heartbreak that, in my opinion, rivals Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. After a year of touring with The Flaming Lips, he went on a musical sabbatical and found Scientology. He returned in 2005 with a very cool record Guero that returned him to his west coast roots with the title track as an ode to all of his Latino compadres in the City of Angels.
This brings us to this year’s opus for the enigma known as Beck Hansen— The Information. Coming back to produce his third album is Nigel Godrich who has become Scorsese to Beck’s De Niro. Their golden collaboration is not only successful critically, but this time, Godrich has helped Beck craft the ultimate album that he has been wanting to make. I feel that this is the album that best defines Beck, and this is why I feel that Godrich is our generation’s best producer. He seems to bring out the best in all of the artists he works with, bringing forth the talents of everyone from Radiohead, Travis, Paul McCartney and now Beck. The great thing about Nigel is that there is no trademark Godrich sound, as some enigmatic producers like Dust Brothers, or the infamous wall of sound style that Phil Spector leaves on all the music that he touches. Unlike the Quincy Joneses or George Martins of the world, Godrich started off as an engineer and as everyone in the music business knows, the engineers are the ones who make the records. The producer is like a director who tells the cinematographer what to shoot. I should know because I produced an album in New Orleans for my friend Noelle Link’s band Random Thought. I can tell you the engineer did all the work setting up the mics and adjusting the levels; he made my job easier of directing what I wanted the band to sound like. That’s why I have the highest respect for Godrich. Nigel is a hands on producer, who knows not only what a good record should sound like but how to physically make one. My guess is that is why so many artists, save for the talentless Strokes, want to work with him.
That being said, this is not a Nigel Godrich album. I just wanted to give him the props he deserves for helping Beck create the best albums of his career, 2002’s Sea Change and now The Information. Odelay, Midnite Vultures and Guero were steeped in rhythms and lyrical odes to his not so distant past. Although Beck continues his fascination with vintage sounds, this time around The Information finds Mr. Hansen exploring his trademark eccentric vibes set to the eclectic beats of the future.
This time around it’s not just about the music, Beck has made his most introspective and thought provoking album that rivals the passionate heartache of the Sea Change sessions. Instead of singing the addictive disposable pop lyrics, we have adored for the longest time, Beck has matured into a true songwriter, playing upon the theme of the role information plays in the search for spirituality, love and connection in these modern times.
The sound of The Information is otherworldly and hooks you from the beginning. The first track is anything but “elevator music,” as the name of the song implies. The mellow beats grab you and they are more than just sampled grooves—you can actually hear real instruments beneath the beats; not just recycled drum loops but soulful piano keys and killer guitar riffs in the mix. The lyrics really connect with me; more so than on any other Beck album, save for Sea Change: “If I could forget myself and find another lie to tell/if I had a soul to sell I’d buy some time to talk to my brain cell.” It’s not just rapping for the sake of the rhyme. There is a search there, a longing for a song that is not just manufactured like Muzak in an office, or elevator.
“Strange Apparition” takes a “Sympathy for the Devil” type keyboard and turns into a funky gospel-house track. I love the way lyrics, “When the lord rings my front door“. harken Beck’s unique lyrical flavor as he turns a classic theme, like the Stones ode to Satan, into a modern day commentary on religion. What I like about “Strange Apparition” is that Beck doesn’t go out and just give props to the Lord, he sings about lost souls trying to connect with God in this age of technological isolationism.
One of my favorite tracks, `Cellphone’s Dead” sounds like a vintage ’70s track updated with spaced out rhythms that could be played in a futuristic disco club. The lyrics lift the song from being more than just a song to shake yr thing to, but rather turn it into a lyrical search for the perfect soundtrack to soothe one’s soul—”been a long time since a federal dime made a jukebox sound like a mirror in my mind/control my worries fix my thoughts.”
If there’s one line that can sum up the intellectual brilliance of Beck’s new album it has to be from the title track, “The Information”—”The ticker tape feeds the mind/ looking for a lost transmission/a heaven that we left behind/ when the information comes we’ll know what we’re made from/and the skyline rising high rise eyes see for you.” Beck’s eerie vocal fits the song’s theme about being lost and alienated in a world filled with information overdrive. I love the freaky sound effects, guitar feedback and pounding drum beats that bring to life the theme of the paranoia that exists living in modern America, where information can be manipulated in front of our very eyes.
Listening to The information I am reminded of a quote from the movie Sneakers: “It’s about who controls the information. What we see and hear, how we work, what we think… it’s all about the information!”
It seems to me with the critical success of the Sea Change sessions, that experience has inspired Beck into become more of a cerebral post modern artist; the result being the creation of this incredible album that’s full of social commentary on how the control of information affects our lives. It’s an interesting concept that’s brought to life in such a lively and futuristic manner. The Information moves you in a different way. There’s a message to the rhythms that shake you to think as your dancing along to that unmistakable beat.
Beck – Sea Change
Beck – Mutations
Eels – Blinking Lights and Other Revelations