“One, two, you know what to do…” went the intro of the first song on The Information, Beck Hansen’s new album of 2006. He certainly did, as his fans confirmed when the record immediately nestled in the US top ten. It’s the next title in uDiscover’s chronological series on the artist’s entire album output.
As so often in Beck’s illustrious past, this latest project saw him standing on fertile ground, emerging just 18 months after Guero, which itself had been complemented by the remix set ‘Guerolito’ late in 2005. The Information also had the artist renewing his working relationship with Nigel Godrich, the British producer who was by now a frequent returning member of Beck’s creative cast.
The album overflowed with crisply performed and produced, imaginative 21st century pop-rock, on songs like ‘Think I’m In Love’ and ‘Strange Apparition,’ which he was able to present with his usual trendsetting audio-visual flair, which once again caught the industry by surprise.
Beck created low-budget videos for every track on the record, and became a flagbearer for the now-accepted concept of connecting with your audience intimately in the digital space. He leaked some of those videos and tracks way before the album release on his website and elsewhere, including, as the era demanded, his MySpace page.
The album was also marketed with a blank sleeve and booklet, and sheets of stickers designed by visual artists handpicked by Beck, so that his audience could further engage by customising the cover to their own design. It was an inspired way of making his fans feel part of his creative process, as he explained to Rolling Stone when the album was released.
“I’ve been trying to do something like this for the last three albums,” he told the magazine. “The conventional ways aren’t working like they used to, so now there’s a willingness to try new things.
“We’re moving into a time when the song and the imagery and video are all able to exist as one thing,” he went on. “It’s not even technically an audio thing anymore. It’s something else.”
It certainly was something else. The second disc on the album that contained all of the video clips was too much for the British chart compilers the Official Charts Company, which banned The Information from the UK sales countdown as they deemed that the video disc gave the title an unfair advantage.
“It’s an unconventional package, but it shouldn’t be penalised for that,” countered Beck. “Any art on a CD is an incentive to buy and listen. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The response from the fans has been so strong, and that’s the most important thing.”
Beck began work on the songs that comprised The Information as far back as 2003, long before Guero and soon after the release of the last of his collaborations with Godrich, the stripped-down Sea Change. During this mid-2000s period, the producer divided his time between the Beck album and Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, the album he oversaw for Paul McCartney.
“Backyard” was the appropriate word for the creation of The Information, too, as Godrich remembered in the Rolling Stone feature. “We built a little studio in his garden [in Los Angeles],” he said. “Half the time we were in the pool, the other half we were talking about what we’re doing and trying new things. It was a lot of he and I hanging out, listening to what we were doing, him writing, me just screwing around endlessly with machines and what not.”
‘Nausea’ was the track that blazed the trail, going to US radio in early September. By then, Beck was in Europe, playing a series of shows that came after an early summer run through the States, on which that new song was already in the set list. So was a cover of Hank Williams’ ‘Lonesome Whistle,’ while an opening show at Freeborn Hall in Davis, California, had him tipping his hat to British pop band the Korgis’ influential 1980 hit ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime.’
The European shows included such destinations as the Paradiso in Amsterdam and the UK’s V Festival, as well as London club shows at Shepherds Bush Empire and Koko. Clickmusic’s review of the V performance enthused about the “puppet-wielding magic of Beck, treating us to ‘Cell Phone’s Dead’ from forthcoming record The Information as well as a jazzed-down rendition of ‘Sexx Laws.’”
When Beck got back to the US, an appearance at the Download Festival preceded a full tour, and TV appearances with Jimmy Kimmel and on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ “The new stuff is good — real good,” glowed SPIN’s review of Download. “Beck’s touring band puts on an electric circus of a show, swapping instruments like candy and shimmying all over the stage.
“Ghetto-blasters are slung over shoulders, vinyl is scratched and maracas are shaken, but among all the audio-visual chaos, Beck and his band maintained the tightest sound I’ve yet to hear from them.”
The Information arrived in early October 2006, heading straight for No. 7 on the Billboard 200 with a first-week sale within a whisker of 100,000, as ‘Nausea’ climbed the Modern Rock Tracks chart. The album later went gold.
Many reviewers were impressed to hear the Beck-Godrich combination producing yet more new sounds and textures. The Los Angeles Times observed: “This is their third collaboration, but neither the casual, light-bodied Mutations nor the intimate Sea Change anticipated this kind of flowering.”
“By the time ‘Horrible Fanfare’ rolls around, 15 numbers in,” said the UK’s The Guardian of the 61-minute album, “you’ll be too dazed to resist.” “Impeccably sequenced and incessantly engaging,” added Popmatters.
For Entertainment Weekly, Beck and his producer “pump bleeps, blips, samples, scratches, voices, telephone noises, and kalimbas into songs soaked in drones and dub reverb. It’s a sonic tour de force.” David Fricke in Rolling Stone came right out and called it “one of the best albums Beck has ever made.”
Reviewers were united in celebrating the rude health of Beck’s many musical personalities, and looking forward to his next surprise. That was a song that won a Grammy, as we’ll recall in our next instalment.