10 Years Ago: Beck Gets Interactive on ‘The Information’
Not only was Beck’s cellphone dead, so was the basic concept of the pop album – at least as far as this multi-faceted artist was concerned. Just before releasing The Information on Oct. 3, 2006, Beck declared a sea change in the way artists release new music.
“There are so many dimensions to what a record can be these days,” he said in a cover story for Wired. “Artists can and should approach making an album as an opportunity to do a series of releases – one that’s visual, one that has alternate versions, and one that’s something the listener can participate in or arrange and change. It’s time for the album to embrace the technology.”
Some of Beck’s perspective came from his previous album, 2005’s Guero, which saw a multitude of releases (both official and leaked) that involved remixes, videos and more. The eclectic, eccentric musician was working on Guero and The Information simultaneously – collaborating on the former with his Odelay buddies the Dust Brothers while working with Nigel Godrich on the latter. Although Beck’s previous team-ups with Godrich had been mellow, often acoustic-based affairs, the producer had something else in mind this time.
“Before we started, Nigel said he wanted to do a hip-hop record,” Beck told MTV in 2006. “And in a way it is, and in a way it isn't. It has hip-hop songs, and my previous work with him was Mutations and Sea Change, these sort of introspective records, and so this new one is sort of bringing those two worlds together.”
Although bridging that gap wasn’t hard, Beck found the act of making an album in fits and spurts over the run of two-and-a-half years to be “difficult,” mostly when it came to distilling 40 potential tracks into something fans could digest. Beck and Godrich managed to get the official release down to 15 songs, many of them dealing with confusion and frustration in the information age (see “Cellphone’s Dead” or “Nausea”). The subject matter is reflected in the sounds of The Information, which features clattering rhythms, skittering bleeps and computerized ephemera. Godrich is credited with playing both a Speak ’n Spell and a Game Boy on the record.
Beck’s lyrics could sometimes make him sound like an old-fogey crank, but his approach to the album embraced technology in the manner suggested by his comments to Wired. Multiple tracks were previewed online, via cheap and silly videos that Beck made with his friends and family. They ended up making a goofy clip for each song, available in a bonus edition of The Information and also on YouTube. But those weren’t the only visual components to the record.
“One cool thing is that the CD cover is going to be designed so no two copies are the same,” Beck revealed before the album was released. “The artwork is going to be customizable. The album will come with all these little stickers – each copy of the disc will have a different set – and you’ll use them to create your own version of the cover. The idea is to provide something that calls for interactivity and that's totally different from what you’ll have if you just download the album.”
The innovative move actually cost Beck a spot on the British album charts, when the U.K. big wigs decided this feature was a gimmick that gave it an “unfair advantage” in sales. Beck seemed mostly unfazed, largely because the album was largely well-received.
While some in the rock press described the release as another one of Beck’s attempts to recreate his past sounds, many praised the sounds, textures and themes of The Information, comparing the album favorably to its predecessor. Stateside fans gave the musician another gold record, which spawned a few modest hits on the rock charts.
Beck would ditch the multimedia approach for his next studio album, 2008’s Modern Guilt, although he’d keep experimenting with ways to use the internet for new projects. These ranged from hastily recorded covers projects released on his website (Record Club) to sheet music that musicians could interpret in their own ways (Song Reader).
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