By Mark Guarino
Beck’s latest album “The Information” (Interscope) is full of surprises. But they are familiar surprises. In successive albums he has crafted a career out of plucking pop culture idioms, from James Brown funk to Game Boy noise, and littering them into intelligent pop songs that raise the bar for inventiveness. In terms of music that expands the vocabulary of pop, no one is operating at his level today.
Yet even for Beck, “The Information,” in stores today, feels stalled. A spacious album that stretches a very laborious hour in length, the 15 songs are often snagged on a singular idea and never evolve further. Despite the jokiness of the environment, they are exceedingly downcast songs. Their sullen mood never deepens so they revolve in a static limbo that is neither original nor particularly engrossing. What you get is an apocalyptic shrug.
Nigel Godrich, the Radiohead producer who stood at the helm of Beck’s most solemn albums, “Mutations” in 1998 and “Sea Change” in 2002, returns. He brings the album’s full spectrum of computer hijinks that glitz up the album’s best songs, from the sly rap attack of “Elevator Music” to the acoustic funk freakout “Nausea.” He and Beck are mindful of constantly elevating the groove, with the album’s popping basslines and strutting dance instrumentals that end most songs.
A psychedelic haze hovers over the majority of “The Information.” String sections run in reverse reminiscent of The Beatles (“Dark Star”), folk instruments gnarl and intertwine (“New Round”) and, with its piano rolls and shakers, one song (“Strange Apparition”) mimics “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones. Beck alternates between singing and rapping, which is, more often than not, lowered to a hush. Which makes sense since his lyrics — some playful, most not — deliver dread: “When the Lord rings my front door/And asks me what I got to show/Besides the dust in my pockets/And the things that just eat away my soul,” he reveals.
The album blurs as it unravels. Full-blown computer productions like “1000BPM” or “We Dance Alone” fail to overcome their nominal bag of tricks. You have heard this all before but better. Instead of eyeing the dancefloor, Beck is stuck, subdued. The ruinous mood that weighs down these songs never gets hot. For an album that would benefit from being cut in half, the result is clear: too much “Information.”