Beck is a man known for wearing many hats at once. He has built his career upon shapeshifting, evading classification, seamlessly blending the unlikely with the illogical. So in this spirit of contradiction, it almost makes sense that his new album, The Information, is simultaneously very good and very underwhelming.
The samples are quirky. The hooks are catchy. The beats are irresistibly funky. This is Beck's third collaboration with producer Nigel Godrich (after Mutations and Sea Change - his mellower work) and their professional rapport is immediately apparant. The Information is packed with dense, constantly transforming compositions that improbably manage to come off as light and effortless. It's a credit to Godrich that so many pings and clicks and buzzes and echoes can be squeezed into a three-minute pop song without seeming overproduced. "Cell Phone's Dead" is a perfect example, breezily blending chorus, turntable, hand claps, electronic bleats and a young girl repeating the phrase "One by one, I'll knock you out."
Beck's persistent spontaneity isn't such an easy trick when one considers how long he's been at it. Midnite Vultures was an over-the-top expedition into new realms of funk absurdity. The grandiose Sea Change exhibited a deeper, more mature songwriting prowess. And back in 1996, Odelay stretched the limits of sheer weirdness permissible in pop music.
The Information fails precisely because it sounds so unsurprising in respect to Beck's older work. The lighthearted pseudo-hip-hop of the album's first track, "Elevator Music," is kooky and quirky and fun, but it feels a lot like a re-tread of the formerly novel. Elsewhere, as in "New Round," Beck dives head-first into tired pop generics. Clocking in at at a full hour, The Information would be 25 percent better if it were 15 minutes shorter.
At 36 years old, Beck is at a stage in his career when one naturally expects the release of high-quality records to decrease in frequency. The Information is an album with some great moments, but it's not a great album by a long shot. Maybe next time.