Beck's been mining his anxieties to create mass-market imagery since releasing the video for 1993's "Loser," a clip that amplified the anti-anthemic sound collage of the song. It was cheap and made a virtue of that cheapness, a successful bit of self-skeptical self-promotion from a man whose grandfather Al Hansen was an ornery conceptual artist of the old school. Here was twentysomething Beck making like a schoolboy—posing as a leaping rock god, a swaggering rap star, a troubadour, and still dressing up to play cowboys and Indians. Here were wholesome American girls rehearsing cheers in a cemetery and also someone in what looked like a grim reaper costume bought a week after Halloween. Here was a scrappy slip of playfully death-obsessed backyard funk.
Beck has rummaged through this bag of tricks to create his new album, The Information, which Interscope has packaged with a DVD of videos, one for each of its songs. The videos—which seem, in total, to have been shot and edited for about what Shakira spends on a routine trip to the hairdresser—have the feel of avant-garde home movies. Mostly, they depict Beck and his cohorts striking poses and goofing around half-purposefully, and that spirit of free play gives the videos their energy. The singer (who shares directorial credit with Nigel Godrich, who produced the record, and photographer Autumn de Wilde) is of course trying to move units, peddling a record by throwing in 46 minutes of digital wallpaper. But The Information is also a sincere experiment in reinvigorating the rock video, an abstract film that communicates some of the feelings that Beck—who herein sings, "I think I'm in love but it makes me kind of nervous to say so"—is too coy or detached to put into words.
The title track—a dance song that goes sinister, its tense ticks and dings of percussion matched to electronic drones, empty moans, and deathly glides—provokes the liveliest video. For "The Information," Beck changes into a summer suit fit for an entertainer on a 19th-century Mississippi showboat, with a straw hat to match. He coos eerie lyrics ("Say hello to a mannequin/The ghost of a lonely tongue") into the ear of a woman with a blue dress and a pile of expensive hair. She looks a bit like Alice in Wonderland and a bit like a Nashville bride, and she has a disaffected mouth and an expression that drifts between a contentedly blank stare and a wickedly knowing smirk.
This rock 'n' roll seduction is intercut and overlaid with footage of a band adorned in Beatles drag of shiny suits and mop-top wigs; they horse around with a guitar, a drum kit, a set of keyboards, a boombox, a toy pistol, and a fake stuffed owl. In a third tableau, a trio of mod chicks dance backup sullenly, the three Fates in bobs and bangs. If this all sounds goofy in a doggedly hip kind of way, that's because it is. But the clip does a decent job of recycling its already endlessly recycled imagery and actually intimating something sincere: a palpable feeling of dread. "The Information" is an electronic funk song about the end of the world. In the video, the air around Beck and his Nashville Alice is at once romantic and menacing. We last see them waving goodbye, and through the layers of irony and the kitschy get-ups, you can glimpse a poignant moment.
Such costumes are the building blocks of this enterprise in digital Dada, cartoon-bright incarnations of archetypes: an astronaut, a karate kid, a ballerina, a grizzly bear. The first clip, "Elevator Music," begins its free associations about war and wealth by juxtaposing a tennis bum with a helmeted soldier. The heaviest song, "Nausea," finds Beck's band rocking it parodically; you're watching swinging files of men with guitars and tight pants fade in and out, the scene made strange with the lowest of lo-fi effects. It's a joke on music-video masculinity that makes its point even as the song struts along. Beck himself wears a single-breasted suit with spiffy piping and a look that, at first, I took to be a hardened hipster's disaffected glare. On second glance, it seemed the singer was just trying, amid the nauseating din of the information age, to be natural. In the clip, as on the whole of this perfectly typical album, he's lost in a cultural thrift shop, tapping his feet while scanning for exits.