In 1994, Beck burst into the public consciousness with his single Loser. A pretty good song that still pops up a lot today. I remember seeing it as a bit of a novelty though. Nothing bad, just a silly little song that would more than likely relegate its perpetrator to a one hit wonder footnote in the history of music. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In the 20 years since, Beck has gone on to become one of the musical elite, selling out massive tours, selling millions of albums, gaining huge mainstream success, all while being able to maintain is street cred and weird edge. And the way I remember it, that mainstream success started with Odelay.
Devil’s Haricut was a moderate alternative radio hit when it dropped, and it remains a quintessential alternative radio hit today. Beck’s laconic vocals over the laconic indie bass is such a distinctive sound of the mid 90s. But hearing it today, it doesn’t sound dated in a bad way. It gives me a warm nostalgic feeling of a time when the majority of my musical tastes were being formed.
Two tracks in, and I’m really starting to regret my laziness and waiting so long to listen to this album. Hotwax is a weird combo of harmonica, half rapping, harpsichord, cheap drum machines, 80s 8bit video game sounds and Beastie Boys style bass drops. Until it becomes a sexy slow jam. And it’s great every step of the way.
Eclecticness seems to be Beck’s calling card and I expected Odelay to be all over the shop. What I didn’t expect was how well that scattershot approach works. This albums isn’t just eclectic from song to song, it’s eclectic within individual songs. The strange combinations of instruments and genres that Beck manages to fuse together is impressive, and means the album is never in any danger of becoming predictable. That eclectic approach is perfectly encapsulated in Lord Only Knows with its mish mash of country slide guitar, electronic drones, folk guitar picking, the odd vocal scream and half a dozen other disparate elements.
After New Polution, the second radio friendly unit shifter off Odelay, things get a little too experimental and out there for my tastes. Derelict is built on hypnotic vocals that I found more annoying than interesting, and a glass bottle percussion that I found even more annoying and even less interesting.
When things start to flirt with industrial and even a little gangsta on Novacane, I got the biggest surprise so far on an album full of surprises. If you described this song and its individual elements to me, I’d think you were describing the worst song I had ever heard. But again, Beck manages to pull off the seemingly impossible, making what might be my favourite song on the album. It’s hard, it’s assertive, it goes against almost every preconceived notion I had about Beck, and it’s great.
Even when writing a stripped back acoustic, signer song writer style mellow joint like Jack-Ass, Beck can’t resist adding a few flourishes here and there. In this case, electronic bleeps and bloops, layers of production, and even a jew’s-harp. The song could have worked with none of that, but never feels overwhelmed once they’re all piled on.
With Where It’s At, I’m reminded how big this album was. It marks the third hit single from Odelay. By hit single, I mean it got played a lot on Triple J back in the day. But before today, I wouldn’t have remembered Odelay producing three pretty massive songs that I still hear regularly today.
Beck has never been scared of a bit of funk, and here, he nails it on Sissyneck. A lo-fi reappropriation of some vintage groove work and it continues this album’s almost flawless track listing. But then, Beck has to go and mess that up with Readymade. It’s not bad, it’s just bland and boring. Which in the context of Odelay seems like a worse crime than being bad. I may not have liked Derelict, but I’d never accuse it of being boring. Readymade, on the other hand, just never goes anywhere.
Odelay had a pretty big reputation to live up to. It’s the big breakthrough for one of the most interesting musicians of the last 20 years. So the fact that it doesn’t just hold up to that reputation, but surpasses it, makes Odelay all the more impressive. I know I’m two decades late, but I’m finally joining the Beck party.