For one thing, there are serious raps here, which is something new. But more than that, what's new is the overall feeling. In much the same way that Mutations, Vultures and Sea Change each had their own character, introducing us to a different way of hearing Beck's recurring lyrical tropes (how many times can one artist sing the words "plastic," "garbage," ghetto-blasting," "devil" and "hollow log"?), The Information has its own peculiar flavor.
To me, what Beck writes are travel records. I think of the early Beck records, especially Mellow Gold, as being about the deteriorating backwaters of America, particularly the South, and I fondly remember listening to Mellow Gold on my Walkman on bus trips during college, when it seemed particularly apt. Odelay continues to work these themes, mixing in a curious fixation on Texas ("Going back to Houston / To get me some pants").
Mutations came out after my first visit to India, but it immediately lodged itself in my mind as the soundtrack of that experience. (The actual soundtrack of that experience was the Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole, which, juxtaposed against the fluorescent-lit incomprehensibility of India's highway nightscapes, was suitably millenarian.) Beck has claimed, implausibly, that an album named after a Brazilian psychedelic band, containing a song called "Tropicalia" and references to mangroves, mynah birds, magistrates, holy mountains and trains, is about Los Angeles. It is not. On Mutations, Beck moves his old fascination with decay to the tropics, to the Third World as viewed by outsiders whose very presence is morally questionable.
Midnite Vultures, Beck's most misunderstood album, was superficially a return to the funkier sound of Odelay. Thematically, however, it broadened still further the theme of global decay and displacement, with references to Israelis, the Baltic Sea, "pop-lockin' beats from Korea," riots and refugees. (Another important theme throughout the record is the blurring of male and female sexuality.)
Looking at Beck's albums this way, it becomes clearer how Sea Change might be the radical break its name implies. For the first time, the album looks inward, charting the latter stages of a devastating breakup and the first glimmers of hope beyond. Guero continues the introspection, if less successfully, and some of the rehashing of old musical themes came off as somehow autobiographical. The emotions of Sea Change were raw and unmediated; Guero felt like a self-conscious stock-taking.
So what next? On The Information, Beck takes off again — this time into outer space. With the increasing publicity around celebrity Scientologists, one might be tempted to see all the space talk as unironic Battlefield Earth-style lunacy, but it's hard to see lines like "We're in spaceships / Take a visit to the Pyrenees" as entirely straight. (Likewise, one could read the mentions of tin cans as references to E-meters, although Beck has been talking about cans in various contexts since the beginning of his career, generally as part of his trash trope.) As for the long, spacey conversation at the end of the record, which The Guardian reveals is a chat between Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze, one should keep in mind Beck's habit of ending records with jokes and noise (Mellow Gold: squawks; Odelay: more squawks; Mutations: "Diamond Bollocks" as a hidden track; Midnite Vultures: "Debra"). Just because Beck is a Scientologist, that doesn't mean he can't use sci-fi imagery in non-creepy ways. Indeed, while the more outré aspects of Scientologist cosmology are utterly silly as a personal belief system, they're actually pretty cool as a source for some rock-lyric imagery.
I'm still not exactly sure what The Information is about, but it does have a pervasive sadness and unease that feels somehow related to the high-tech, information-overloaded world we live in. And it's quite lovely. Unlike Guero, whose surface I never felt like a penetrated, The Information has lodged deep in my skull, where I'm sure it will continue to resonate for some time.
Oh, and do check out the Guardian article. It's a smarter take on Beck than just about anything else I've read on him.