At the heart of all the weirdness that comprises Beck is something stranger: his blankness. He’s made it the subject of his art (his attention-grabbing, ostensibly ironic “Loser”), covered it up (his crowd-pleasing, extroverted Odelay), and even temporarily transcended it (his critic-wowing, introverted Sea Change). Even sweet Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips—who briefly acted as Beck’s backing and opening band during the singer’s initial Sea Change trek—has bitched about his touring partner’s detachment, but Beck’s between-song banter then was much funnier than when he’d previously focused on funny music.
During his recent summer tour, Beck zoned out while his band and their puppet counterparts put on a far more animated performance. On the DVD that accompanies new album The Information—featuring blatantly improvised music videos for each of the CD’s 16 tracks—Beck’s wife, Marissa Ribisi; freak-folk icon Devendra Banhart; and various bandmates and friends dress up and strike suitably ridiculous poses while their aloof leader stares down the camera for most of the album’s hour-long duration, only fleetingly revealing recognizable emotions.
Despite its celebrated return of the Dust Brothers, last year’s
Guero suffered from Beck’s lapse in connectivity—while its livelier grooves evoked Odelay‘s playfulness, he seemed to be having only a fraction of that album’s fun. Started before Guero but finished this year, The Information combats Beck’s tendency to absent himself with more forceful hooks on its catchiest tracks. On back-to-back high points “Cellphone’s Dead” and “Strange Apparition,” Sea Change Kid A producer Nigel Godrich creates dancefloor psychedelia that seems to sample Beck’s own band to greater effect than the Dust Brothers’ previous batch of vinyl-originated bits. Beck’s rapping adds little to the four-and-a-half tracks on which it appears, but the surrounding musicianship, arrangements, and sonics are so consistently compelling that there’s plenty to savor even as Beck drifts during the album’s largely sedate second half. Information ultimately suffers from the same hollowness that weakened Guero, but it’s bolder at its best and less derivative of previous victories. Beck’s still a space cadet, but this journey’s copilot steers him to a more picturesque planet.