Happy 20th Anniversary to Beck’s Odelay, originally released June 18, 1996.
With Prince’s tragic passing in April, the world lost an artist of incomparable musical magnitude, one that we will presumably never witness the likes of again. He was truly the most dynamic musician to emerge during the past forty years, a stretch that very nearly parallels my own lifetime, and his legacy will endure for generations to come.
In Prince’s absence, then, who now carries the torch of musical ingenuity and integrity? Who is that one artist that, as with Prince, will be remembered as a vital creative visionary for decades, if not centuries, to come? A few names come to mind, but the one at the forefront, at least for me, is Beck Hansen.
Like Prince, Beck continually challenges sonic boundaries, refuses to be pigeonholed by restrictive genre classifications, and demonstrates a proven penchant for artistic reinvention. Not to mention that he, again like Prince, is a supremely gifted songwriter and multi-dimensionally talented instrumentalist.
From his earliest indie recordings including Stereopathetic Soulmanure (1994) and One Foot in the Grave (1994) to his mid-90s major label breakthroughs to his more overtly experimental efforts to his most recent Grammy-winning revelation Morning Phase (2014), I can’t think of a Beck album that I don’t enjoy listening to. Regardless of how you truly feel about Beck’s music, you can’t help but listen, to satisfy your curiosity about what he has up his sleeve at any given time. When surveying his prolific discography over the past two and a half decades, it’s remarkable to behold just how far his music has evolved from his 1993 slacker anthem “Loser,” the breakthrough hit that, on the strength of MTV’s championing of its accompanying video, made his a household name and helped him land his first major record label deal with Geffen Records.
Following the pervasive success of “Loser” and the lo-fi major label debut LP Mellow Gold (1994), the invariable backlash materialized, with Beck being unfairly accused of one-hit wonderdom and embracing kitschy artifice over musical substance. Two years later, however, he silenced the haters in convincing fashion with the release of the ambitiously conceived and masterfully executed Odelay, which formally established him as a bona fide artiste with an unconventional and imaginative musical vision.
The album that Beck originally began recording as the follow-up to Mellow Gold was a notably more acoustic-driven, maudlin suite of songs. He ultimately scrapped most of the material, and started fresh with a new sonic direction, aided in large part by hooking up with the L.A. based production duo of E.Z. Mike (Michael Simpson) and King Gizmo (John King), more affectionately known as the Dust Brothers. Renowned for their studio wizardry on the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique (1989), Young MC’s Stone Cold Rhymin’ (1989), and Tone Loc’s Lōc-ed After Dark (1989), among other projects, the Dust Brothers brought a seasoned hip-hop sensibility and penchant for innovative sampling to their recording sessions with Beck.
Crafting the intricately woven songs that would ultimately constitute Odelay was an organic, liberating process replete with new sonic adventures for the kindred musical spirits involved. “We’d always been forced to sample from records,” Dust Brother Mike Simpson explained to MusicRadar in 2011. “Whereas with Beck he’d say, ‘I’ve got some ideas,’ and plug in his guitar and just start riffing. He’d play a bar or a measure and we’d take that and loop it up and he’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s incredible. Wow, I don’t even remember playing that!’ We were of like minds, had the same goals, and were looking to make the same kind of music.”
Indeed, the kaleidoscopic, multi-layered Odelay—named after the phonetic spelling of the Spanish expression “órale,” the equivalent of “right on” or “word” in English—reflects the convergence of a vast expanse of unorthodox ideas, musical inspirations, and bold experiments across its thirteen songs. However, to the credit of its creators, the album is a coherent and cohesive one, never descending into hodgepodge territory from the weight of its grand ambitions. This is progressive music, to be sure, but it’s also one of the most insanely catchy and vibrant albums you’ll ever have the pleasure of hearing.
From a lyrical perspective, Beck has been forthright about his preoccupation with ensuring that his words are, first and foremost, compatible with the sonic structures of his songs. Hence why the lyrics featured throughout Odelay are more akin to wistful streams of consciousness than calculated messages with profound underlying meaning contained therein.
“I didn't want to be pretentious or pompous in the way some songwriters suddenly decide, ‘OK, now I'm a poet; I'm going to turn these lyrics into poetry,’ Beck confided to Rolling Stone in 1997. “For me, the words still have to be funky. Especially in the area of music I'm working in: It's not art music; it's not conceptual. The words have got to feel good, and they have to sound good; they have to fit the rhythm. That's the hardest thing. You got a melody, you got this thing that's musical, and you want to stick words on it. Words can really weigh something down. And if you put in the wrong words, I'm telling you, it'll ruin the music; it'll ruin the melody.” Beck would subsequently refine and streamline his songwriting approach beginning with the follow-up effort Mutations (1998) and more noticeably on Sea Change (2002), but here, his words defy intuitive comprehension, and instead exist in a surreal, dreamlike state that commands listeners to exercise their imaginations.
Five singles were officially released from Odelay, with the hypnotic “Where It’s At” the first and most memorable among these. Propelled by a cacophony of distorted melodies, oddball vocal snippets, and the unforgettable chorus chant of “Where it’s at! I’ve got two turntables and a microphone,” with a robotic echo lifted from Mantronix’s 1985 single “Needle to the Groove,” Beck gives you little choice but to wholeheartedly accept his invitation to the “destination a little up the road.”
Though less ubiquitous than “Where It’s At,” the four other singles are all unequivocal standouts. The rollicking, breaks-driven “Devil’s Haircut” and buoyant “The New Pollution,” which samples the horns of saxophonist Joe Thomas’ 1976 composition “Venus” to stunning effect, are the album’s most exhilarating, pop-friendly fare. On the more subdued tip, the sprawling “Jack-Ass,” presumably an ode to listlessness in life and love, and “Sissyneck,” a countrified exploration of the free-ramblin’ existence, are both irresistible gems.
Other highlights include the Pixies-like punk rock flourishes and vocal wails heard on “Minus,” the downtempo breakbeat-imbued twangs and leftfield rhymes on “Hotwax,” and the funky grooves juxtaposed with frenzied, distorted sonics on “Novacane” and “High 5 (Rock the Catskills).”
A commercial and critical triumph that went double platinum and secured countless accolades, including the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album alongside a nomination for Album of the Year, Odelay proved the album that convinced listeners, and the music industry at large, to finally give Beck the credit he so rightfully deserved.
“Odelay was expected to be such a failure,” Beck admitted to Pitchfork in 2011. “I remember the record company having some kind of party right before there was a big merger when everyone got fired. It was after Odelay had sold 2 million copies and I remember the head of the record company giving this speech in which it was obvious that he was very confused about its success. I think everyone felt that way. So pretty much everything since has been a bit of a retreat from that kind of success.” Indeed, with each album Beck has crafted since his magnum opus, he has continued to inspire and excite in unexpected ways, further cementing his rightful place as one of the most inventive and indispensable forces in the history of American music.