Beck has trafficked in strangeness and opacity for so long that he's now able to surprise just by saying what he means. Two tracks into The Information, listeners will hit a song called "Think I'm In Love" that's about exactly what its title suggests, as Beck sings from the position of someone who thinks he's in love, but is forced to admit, "it makes me kind of nervous to say so." That vulnerability resurfaces on "Movie Theme," in which a lush, Eno-like soundscape gives way to lines like "carry my heart like a soldier with a hand grenade." That sentiment is so sincere that it's sure to shock fans used to much more opacity. Even the mournful 2002 album Sea Change rarely cut this close to the bone.
The Information is at least partly about how love makes us uneasy, but Beck has rarely sounded this comfortable being Beck. Where last year's Guero sounded like a not-quite-right reprise of all his old moves, The Information makes for a much more satisfying return to past Beck sounds, and one that points the way to the future. Previously responsible for Beck's lush, quiet albums Sea Change and Mutations, Nigel Godrich here mixes that approach with the cut-and-paste sounds usually found on Beck's Dust Brothers-produced albums. Flutes and harmonies mix with antique computer voices. Organic rhythms turn mechanical and back again. Non-sequitur coffee-shop raps give way to gorgeous croons.
There's nothing here that Beck hasn't done before, but it sounds unexpected once again, which is a fitting development for an artist who made his name repurposing old material in unexpected ways. Here, he's done a Beck on himself, and built a stronger, funkier, more moving Beck in the process.