For his new album, Beck decided to have what might be called an interactive CD cover, in that it comes packaged in a white sleeve accompanied by a sheet of stick-on symbols and images with which the listener can create their own unique sleeve design. It's an idea that echoes the way he makes the music on the CD, picking and choosing from a range of sonic images and combining them to see how agreeable a design he can make with them.
In the case of The Information, the results are very agreeable indeed. Coming after last year's Guero, it's the first time Beck's made two great albums in succession since the heady days of Mellow Gold and Odelay - and all the more surprising given that previous collaborations with producer Nigel Godrich have resulted in some of his least agreeable works, the pallid Mutations and maudlin break-up album Sea Change. This time, they seem to have found a much more effective balance between those albums' bland folk-rock stylings and the bohemian oddball hip-hop/indie crossover with which he's more commonly associated. So while some songs may seem relatively straightforward, with observations like "think I'm in love, but it makes me kinda nervous to say so", elsewhere the surreal flows of imagery test the boundaries of semantics in the nicest way, as in the chorus to "Motorcade": "We're all pushing up the tin-can mountaintop the smokestack clouds in glory attached" - which just about makes sense as a scenic vista.
One recurring notion posits the heart as a fragile object separate from the body, kept in a shell or carried like a hand-grenade, suggesting that despite his happy relationship, Beck's emotional equilibrium remains perilously sensitive. And, not surprisingly, politics seeps through - my favourite is the invitation in the title-track to "Say hello to America/Ghost with an iron tongue". But it's the musical arrangements which most sparkle with intrigue and inventiveness, from the bricolage of small, tinkly sound fragments harnessed to a pumping bassline in "1000 bpm", to the combination of Stones-y percussion and sleek West Coast harmonies that make "Strange Apparition" sound like The Eagles singing "Sympathy For The Devil".
Throughout, Godrich sustains a light, airy tone despite the often sonically dense material involved, enabling tracks like "Soldier Jane" to take flight. The only real misfire comes towards the end with the 11-minute suite "The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton". But that's an isolated quibble on an otherwise excellent album.
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