Information Overload

While Sept. 11, 2001, was a catalyst, 2006 will be remembered as a tipping point. Just as agriculture led from cities and empires to corporations and industries, data and network technology have c

Jan 10, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Oliver Meinerding

While Sept. 11, 2001, was a catalyst, 2006 will be remembered as a tipping point. Just as agriculture led from cities and empires to corporations and industries, data and network technology have changed the human condition. The midterm elections exposed it: It might not be the last campaign to rely upon traditional ads, but it was the first to use YouTube and the Internet to deliver coded messages, for better and worse. What's a macaca? Who knows, but it cost an election, so it must be important! Beck's 2006 set, The Information, narrates and scores this new age.

The Information has received glowing reviews, so I won't be lonely counting this among Beck's best work. In his first collaboration with the renowned production team The Dust Brothers since Odelay, it's hard to say who brought what to the table. Beck's drifted steadily away from beat-box-powered Cali-hippiehop, veering towards melodic songs, inventively performed by conventional ensembles. This record seamlessly combines that organic flavor, with the edgy, groove-driven loops of the brothers Dust.

Beck's always been a great craftsman, mating words and ideas in delicious combinations, but his meaning is often opaque (some say non-existent!). So unforgettable choruses and cultural cachet (who hasn't had a devil's haircut in their mind?) sometimes seemed overblown or even pretentious. Beck's lyrics grew more concrete beginning with 2002's Sea Change through 2005's Guero. The Information is 180 degrees from Odelay, replacing flowing über-cool words (delivered with more attitude than meaning), with dense, tightly written phrases with multiple meanings. Take the chorus of "Motorcade": "We're all pushin' up the tin-can mountaintop, the smokestack skies, with glory attached." The words apply to 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and Paul Tibbets (captain of the Enola Gay, incinerator of hundreds of thousands). They're a propos to New York City, Beirut and Baghdad in the 21st century, and Dresden, Tokyo and Hiroshima in the 20th century. History belongs to the winners, piloting our handiwork, certain of their glory. While our oil-powered culture kills our planet, we revel in the glory of SUVs!

In the '90s, Moby's Play reshaped the modern album: released in various forms on different media at different price points, with many songs placed in TV commercials before the album was even released! The Information takes the opposite path — a single container packed with value, designed to be re-purposed (by sticker-bearing fans, not marketers selling cars or soap). Like most titles today, it can be bought by the song or by the album. Whatever you prefer.

While I appreciate the sentiment, the effect's weakened a bit by the included DVD. It contains nothing but fairly conventional music videos. No surround mixes. No games or virals. And while Bob Ludwig's mastering of the CD is gorgeous, the DVD doesn't sound so hot.

Visualizations and video can add meaning or interest, but conventional "music video" is no more vital today than it was back in '81 when "Video Killed the Radio Star." At best, music videos are eye candy. At worst, they lock fans into a director's vision, and lock out the listener's own experience. While Beck has made some fun videos, it's hard to rave about this collection, mostly falling into the stale "bunch of guys jammin' hard" genre. Music visualization is still in its infancy. Few artists have successfully used video to expand their vision, but on this record, Beck doesn't bother trying. Or maybe he just gave up, resigning himself to performance footage (which does less violence to the songs than badly executed concept videos might). But that's just me. If you like watching bands perform, you'll like these videos. None suck, and most avoid restricting the narrative.

The package is compact for such a sprawling work. The CD and DVD live in a conventionally sized and shaped jewel box, with graph-paper print. Album art and title text are MIA. Inside you'll find a folded sheet of stickers, including graphics for the songs (keyed to the inside printed parts of the booklet), to match the lone applied sticker on the front with the artist's name. I call it sprawling not because it folds out into a poster or anything like that, but for it's breadth: audio, video, printed booklet and the aforementioned stickers printed on transparent plastic. There's no reason to expect fans will limit their application to the jewel box or album itself. We can put the stickers on our cars, laptops or kitchen windows.

Of course, Beck's not the first artist to put stickers in a record, and companion DVDs are common today. As good as the lyrics might be, there are plenty of great songs out there, including Beck's other work. And production teams like the Dust Brothers can be hired by anyone with the bank. What makes The Information important isn't any of those things, but all of them. It's a single package that slips easily into existing distribution chains, and blows up to fill your car, iPod, TV and windows with music, videos and stickers (attaching itself to your possessions and lodging in your brain). The Information aims to be ubiquitous, all things to all people, but unlike previous Beck records, the message rings clear regardless of venue.

(Special thanks to Jessica Gilbert, my lovely and wise stepdaughter, for infecting me with The Information!)

DAVE DAVIS makes records and designs new media at Sound Images.