Not to worry, he's still weird

October 8, 2006


  • While it certainly had its moments -- with songs such as the anthemic "E-Pro," the blissful pop tune "Girl" and "Que Onda Guero," an impressionistic tour of the Latin American neighborhood of his teens -- Beck's last album "Guero" (2005) left longtime followers of the diminutive sonic alchemist wondering if he'd joined the ranks of tired superstars such as U2 and the Rolling Stones, who've devoted the last phase of their careers to making "new" albums that are little more than tour souvenirs and inferior imitations of earlier, stronger sounds.

    Closing in on age 40, clearly enamored with being a rock star, and thinking that it's his due -- the same way that fellow Scientologist Tom Cruise believes he's entitled to fame and adoration regardless of what he actually does in his work -- it wasn't hard to imagine Beck simply imitating Beck from this point on.

    The disc that preceded "Guero," 2002's "Sea Change," sounded like a brilliant last gasp: the most mature and least ironic album of Beck Hansen's career, inspired by the turbulent end of the romance that preceded him finding true happiness with actress Marissa Ribisi ("Dazed and Confused"), and his most satisfying effort in terms of sustaining a heartfelt musical and lyrical mood.

    But Beck was a revelation on his last tour, playing two sold-out nights at the Riviera Theatre in September 2005, and on his new album, he surprises us once again.

    Three years in the making -- the artist started recording these songs before "Guero," working with Nigel Godrich (who was at the helm for "Sea Change" and "Mutations," as well as Radiohead's "OK Computer" and "Kid A") and only recently finishing this material -- "The Information" isn't exactly the equal of "Sea Change" for heartfelt directness and overall consistency. Nor does it surpass the accomplishment of "Odelay" (1996), which stands as his finest moment when he's in his Dadaist jokester, genre-hopping madman guise. Yet it succeeds by combining those two seemingly disparate strains in his work, jumping from playful surrealism to winning sincerity and from beat-driven sonic pastiches to some of the most straightforward and affecting songs he's ever written, all the while maintaining a surprisingly cohesive if relentlessly psychedelic vibe that he describes, in typically cryptic fashion, as "the whole mood of the country."

    You could read that to mean that at age 36, happily married and the father of a 2-year-old son, Beck is getting political, and this is sort of the case in songs such as "Soldier Jane" -- though the impressionistic lyrics of this sitar-driven drone may or may not be about a female G.I. -- and "Dark Star," which does feature the striking lyric, "A widow's tears washing a soldier's bones / Sterilized egos, delirium sequels / Punctured by the arrows of American eagles." But Beck always has been much stronger at capturing the general spirit of modern times, serving as a wry commentator and disoriented guide through a topsy-turvy universe of media saturation, technological paranoia and postmodern absurdity. Or as he sings on the first single "Nausea," "I'm a seasick sailor / On a ship of noise ... my instincts poisoned / In a truth blown gutter."

    On the fractured hip-hop tip, Beck gives us some of his most winning and most schizophrenic grooves ever, including the album opener, "Elevator Music"; the frenetic "1000 BPM" and the swirling and funky "Cell Phone's Dead," with the boast "Make a kick drum sound / Like an S.O.S." standing as the coolest statement of his modus operandi since he bragged of having "two turntables and a microphone" back in 1999.

    Meanwhile, among the more conventional rock or pop tunes, the charmingly earnest but non-sappy love song "Think I'm in Love" and the tribute to the Rolling Stones in their gospel mode during "Strange Apparition" are, quite simply, two of the strongest songs he's penned.

    To be sure, "The Information" isn't without its problems: Beck always has been entirely too prolific, self-satisfied and sorely in need of an editor, and the 15-track disc peters out toward the end on the title song and slight throwaways such as the aptly named "Movie Theme" and "Horrible Fanfare / Landslide / Exoskeleton."

    And the bonus DVD, which includes a low-budget video for every song on the album, shot in-studio during the sessions and edited on a $100 mixer he bought on eBay, is pretty much unwatchable. (The idea had been to float the clips for free on YouTube, though just to cover his rock-star bases, Beck also shot a "real" video for "Cell Phone's Dead" with top-dollar director Michel Gondry that isn't included here.)

    Still, "The Information" is much, much better than many expected from Beck at this stage, and it serves as a strong testament to a career that, thankfully, hasn't shifted into neutral, after all.

    As for the current tour, any worries that he could never top the most striking moment on last year's theater jaunt -- which found the band playing several songs while seated at a dinner table, using the utensils, the glassware and the table itself as "instruments" -- are offset by the news that he'll be accompanied by several marionettes, each dressed like a member of the group and mimicking the flesh and blood musician as it's operated by some of the puppeteers who worked on "Team America."

    Beck may be getting older, but it's nice to know than he isn't getting any less weird -- and it's even better to hear him recapturing a measure of those old, boundless ambitions.


    When: 8 p.m. Saturday

    Where: UIC Pavilion, 1150 W. Harrison

    Tickets: $35

    Phone: (312) 559-1212


    Beck, "The Information" (Interscope) Critic's rating: 3 and a half stars