The Information — one of the best albums Beck has ever made — starts with him going backward. “Elevator Music” is a mundane jumble of talking blues and hip-hop bricolage that sounds like it should be on a record called More Mellow Gold. The rest of The Information is just as dense in its rhyme games, rhythmic details and overdub antics. But it is a compelling overload, combining the sample-delic bloom of Beck’s best-loved album, Odelay, and the folk-pop introspection of his least-understood, 2002’s Sea Change. “Strange Apparition” is a funky strut with coffeehouse-angel harmonies and a saloon-piano lick that seems to have strolled over from the Rolling Stones‘ Beggars Banquet. In “Soldier Jane,” Beck harmonizes like a pair of John Lennons over a Neu-ish hum sprayed with synthesized star shine and spiced with droning sitar.
Beck plays many of the instruments himself, makes much of the noise (with producer Nigel Godrich) and often writes like a man overwhelmed. “I’m a seasick sailor/On a ship of noise/I got all my maps backwards/And my instincts poisoned,” he sings in “Nausea,” an impatient boogie with Pac-Man-beep electronics and the Hobbit-folk strum of Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. Things get even worse in the Bomb Squad-style Armageddon of “Horrible Fanfare,” the first part of the album’s closing suite: “Banality lives where hysteria kills.” But the songs never drown in the data. Neither does Beck’s certainty in them that cell phones and instant messaging do not equal clarity or connection. “I think I’m in love, but it makes me kind of nervous to say so,” he sings in “Think I’m in Love,” a marvelous gene splice of Kraftwerk‘s Autobahn and Love’s Forever Changes. It is a sweet, plain-spoken thought — and the kind that only matters when you have the heart to say it to someone out loud, face to face.