Beck – Odelay (1996)
Glenn: Odelay‘s stylistic diversity, junkyard-dada sampling aesthetic, and anticipation of the mash-up have been justly praised. However, what strikes me 14 years out is the sheer range of moods Beck’s masterwork strikes. Is there any other record with this much emotional variety? From the goofball hick-hop of “Sissyneck” to the monster-movie drone of “Derelict” to the melancholy sigh of “Jack-ass” (a personal favorite) to the sheer fun of “Hotwax,” Odelay makes you feel joy, fear, sadness, confusion, and flashdance-ass-pants dance lunacy all in equal measure, sometimes in the same song.
Take “The New Pollution.” At first: a Christmas carol backed by Tom-and-Jerry sound effects and touchtone telephone (remember those?). Cool. Fun. Goofy. Then the “Taxman”-ish drumbeat takes us into bodyrock territory (Awesome! Let’s Party!) but the under-the-breath chorus (Huh?) and echoey saxophone sample (Ooh, Spooky!) contain an encroaching eerieness that eventually empties and washes into the bleak “Derelict.” You’ve gone from point A to point Z in 4 quick minutes. The entire record works like that. From the trashcan-Dylan wordplay to the mishmash of Pavement-style guitar and hip-hop rudiments to the many, many samples that make up the sonic background of the album, Odelay works on juxtaposition.
Adam: I remember back when I had a CD case that only held 12 CDs. This was one of the first 12 CDs I acquired, and I used to listen to it a lot. My first exposure to Beck Hansen was, like many people’s, in 1994 with “Loser.” I liked the song, and then summarily forgot about Beck until the summer of 1996, when the video for “Where It’s At” (which, upon rewatching just now, I realize that, at the 2:25 mark, there is an homage to William Shatner’s famous “Rocketman” performance, which means that Beck did it way before Family Guy did it) received heavy airplay on MTV. My family never had cable TV, so I’d get my fill of MTV in hotels on our summer vacations. This video was on all the time, and I remember my whole family enjoying it. The “two turntables and a microphone” chorus was catchy as hell, and the video was, for lack of a better word, weird. I think the “weirdness” was what initially attracted me to Beck and thus to Odelay. In 1996, Beck was doing things that nobody else was doing.
Glenn: He was doing things that nobody — or almost nobody — was doing. And yet I remember thinking, back circa ’97, that Odelay, along with other sample-heavy records like DJ Shadow’s Entroducing… and Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), plus sonic forebears Paul’s Boutique (produced by the Dust Brothers) and De la Soul’s Three Feet High & Rising, would usher in a movement of genre-hopping psychedelic hip-hop meant for deep listening.
However, that never really came to be. Lawsuits and copyright prohibited the economic viability of densely sample-laden music, and Puff Daddy proved in the late ’90s that obvious samples of recognizable hits, not subtly interwoven snippets from obscure cuts, were the stuff that chartbusters were made of.
And yet the influence of Odelay and its brethren (plus electronica and rave music) now pervades popular music, albeit differently. Though most pop hits today aren’t really sample-based in Odelay-fashion, a spin of the Top 40 dial shows that today’s hitmakers share Odelay‘s anything-goes-so-long-as-it-works ethos. From Fall Out Boy’s emo-meets-schoolyard-chants-in-da-club to ringtone pop to Kanye West’s Jon Brion-slick chipmunk soul to Taylor Swift’s very pop-rockish country to, I don’t know, Beyonce, pop music today is made of many, many different styles and sounds. (I’m not saying that’s good, or bad — just that it’s there.) Ten years ago we would never have heard so many different styles on the same station, much less in the same song. While popular music has been a music of fusion since, well, forever, the fact that you can sometimes hardly tell whether you’re listening to a singer raised on rock, soul, jazz, gospel, hip-hop, or pop, is a sign that Odelay has triumphed. And, with the cultural and social implications of the fused-genre pop value system (equality! dialogue! cultural exchange! meritocracy!), one has to hope that it’s a good thing.
Adam: To shift gears slightly (no pun intended), I remember reading or hearing an interview with Beck shortly after this album came out saying that when he wrote a song he always drove around and sang it to himself because he liked his songs to be good driving songs. And I find that Odelay is a very good driving album. I’m thinking specifically of the heavy downbeats on “Devil’s Haircut,” the steel guitar on “Lord Only Knows” and especially “Novacane,” which is expressly about “semi-trucks haulin’ their asses” and has just enough distortion applied to the vocals to make it sound as if they were recorded through a CB radio. I will admit, though, that “Novacane” drags quite a bit in the second half, with a boring melody made up of electronic beeps.
Since we’re talking songs, Glenn, I’d have to agree with your sentiments above regarding “Jack-Ass,” and I have to mention what has long been my favorite song on Odelay: “Lord Only Knows.” I won’t venture a guess as to what the song is really about, but the lyrics seem to hang together quite nicely. I especially like the line “Don’t call us when the new age gets old enough to drink.” The steel guitar is stellar as well. The only song I really have no patience for is “High 5 (Rock The Catskills).”
4 Essential Tracks:
“Lord Only Knows“
“The New Pollution”