Slippery bugger, that Beck. One minute, he’s larking around in tight lycra, warbling about breaking all manner of ‘Sexx Laws’ in his best Prince falsetto; the next, he’s pulled up his zipper, picked up a battered old acoustic and he’s pouring out his pain over a hip-hop beat that rattles like a rickety railroad.
Critics the world over have snapped countless pencils asking the same question over and over: exactly who is the real Beck Hansen? The sidewalk busker, a wide-eyed kid with no home and no comb? The snake-hipped Hollywood chameleon, a showman with a thousand costume changes? The child of Scientology, a whacked-out, alien-loving child of the universe? Truth is, it doesn’t matter – Beck can be all these things and more. Unfortunately, his last two albums didn’t quite demonstrate it – ‘Sea Change’ felt a bit too sober, like an entertainer robbed of his audience, while last year’s ‘Guero’, a reuinion with ‘Odelay’ producers The Dust Brothers mixed it up, but lacked the absurdist dog-on-a-bicycle charm that made his 1996 breakthrough such a joy. Luckily, though, the eerie, excellent ‘The Information’ weaves its cosmic tendrils through every era of Beck’s career – and it’s all the better for it. The world this album comes from is some sort of dystopian future, where piles of burning plastic beckon in an impending Ice Age, a kickdrum’s beat sounds “like an SOS” and a rare hint of salvation comes when Beck ponders how nice it would be to blast into space in a glowing, multi-coloured spaceship. It’s not the real Beck Hansen – it’s the unreal Beck Hansen. Admit it: that’s exactly what you want.
‘The Information’ finds Beck back with producer Nigel Godrich, the long-term Radiohead producer we last saw credited as arranger on Thom Yorke’s ‘The Eraser’. And indeed, it shares several traits with Yorke’s album. There’s the same sense of future disquiet. T
here’s a similar use of ghostly electronics and outer-limit psychedelics. But, importantly, there’s the the same feeling this is an artist genuinely using technology as a tool of exploration, not just buggering around with electronics to pass the time before the next tour.
If that makes it sound like a gloom-fest, then chill your moon-boots. “I’m worse for wear/But I’m wearing it well”, he barks on the opening ‘Elevator Music’, with the sort of irresistible groove that comes on like Kraftwerk computer-boxing with The Beta Band circa ‘Dry The Rain’, but still feels utterly, irrevocably Beck. And if he hasn’t quite captured the haywire tone of ‘Odelay’ – the songs here are sort of down, sort of melancholy – there are enough killer lines to confirm that he’s rocking the brain-bending Dada rap-play better than he has for nearly a decade. “Voodoo curses, Bible tongues/Voices coming from the mangled lungs”, goes ‘Cellphone’s Dead’. And yeah, he still flows goofy, without the authority of Jay-Z or the passion of Eminem; but that was never the point. Beck kind of raps like Keanu Reeves acts: dazed and slack-jawed, set adrift in a world that’s confusing and constantly changing.
This isn’t to say the emotional lessons of ‘Mutations’ and ‘Sea Change’ have been forgotten. ‘Think I’m In Love’ powers along on thunderous Kraut-tinged repetition, but it’s a joy spiked with wisps of cello. Meanwhile, the album’s most hands-down majestic track, ‘Strange Apparition’, rides a wave of piano to an epic, mountain-top climax of strummed acoustic guitar.
Perhaps more intriguing still, although never fully explicit, is the influence that Scientology has had on the concept of ‘The Information’. Beck has a history with Scientology, and while he’s not exactly the proselytising sort (you never feel as if he’s waving a membership form in your face), the lyrics of synth-smeared space oddity ‘Movie Theme’ (“Looking for a ladder in the stratosphere/So I can be happy/Let my bones melt away”) drop a few hints as to where his head’s at. ‘The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton’, however, is the album’s one slightly embarrassing Battlefield Earth moment. By its ninth minute, it’s become a spoken-word track built over strange backwards drones and disembodied voices dreaming of space-travel. “You would be inside the spaceship, but also the spaceship”, one mutters. “Like an exoskeleton. Know what I’m saying?” Er, oh yeah, dude. Totally.
Beck has plans for ‘The Information’. He wants to release the whole album on YouTube, with home-made videos produced using a $100 mixer he bought off eBay. It’s the sort of madness you only hear from the artists who really mean it. Because it was never really about irony for Beck Hansen. In every way he’s a child of LA, in all its unhinged, history-free beauty, all surface and – well, not no content, but a content constantly reforming and refining itself, chucking ideas around like jacks in a playground and cackling as they fall. If Beck gets better as he gets madder, this is definitely his best since ‘Midnite Vultures’ – maybe even since ‘Odelay’. Here comes the twister.