The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

CLASSIC ’90s: Beck – ‘Odelay’

beck_odelayby Ed Biggs

Following the enormous success of his breakthrough single ‘Loser’ in 1994, Beck Hansen faced the prospect of being pigeonholed as a one-hit wonder, weighed down by an albatross of a song with which he would be associated in the minds of the public, in the mid ‘90s. But just like Radiohead, who had themselves written a huge hit the year before in ‘Creep’ that had also been adopted as a kind of Gen-X slacker anthem by the MTV kids, Beck successfully squared the circle by following his signature song with what has long since become his signature album. Just like The Bends had done for Thom Yorke and co., Odelay was his great leap forwards, one that proved that, not only could he re-produce the same quality, but also evolve as an artist.

Odelay is possibly the most stylistically diverse million-seller of the ‘90s, and the reason for its consistent brilliance is a combination of Beck’s burgeoning flair for innovative arrangement and The Dust Brothers’ first production gig in nearly seven years. The album’s sample-heavy, sound collage aesthetic had been presaged in Beastie Boys’ 1989 masterpiece Paul’s Boutique (which, tellingly, was The Dust Brothers’ previous production job), but this time that template was applied to an even wider mixture of genres, ranging from guitar-based rock, country and smatterings of hardcore punk to soul, funk, psychedelia and hip-hop, but it didn’t drown out Beck’s unique, anti-folk style and his talent for arrangement. Rather, the production duo accent and embellish the tracks, lacing his stylish musical shifts together rather than provide the musical frames like they did for the Beastie Boys. Their production helped galvanise Beck’s disparate ideas into a coherent whole.

For all the seemingly random leaps between genre, the unlikely and disparate strands that are tied together and resolved, everything on Odelay flows so smoothly, and makes such innate sense to even a first-time listener, that one wonders why more artists don’t attempt the same. Then you realise: they do, but they simply can’t do it as effortlessly well as Beck can. It’s one thing to be a crate-digger, obsessed with junk culture and disposable cultural detritus, but it’s quite another to make something as dazzlingly original as this – embracing the same lo-fi recording techniques that had made Mellow Gold and its mini-album predecessors so promising, but polishing the edges and corners with cutting edge technology to make an eclectic, quintessentially nineties alt-pop classic.

Opening with ‘Devil’s Haircut’, a song that’s become almost as iconic as ‘Loser’ with its roaring MC5 riff and brisk, propulsive rhythm underneath similarly self-doubting and contemplative lyrics, chilled yet abrasive at the same time, Beck proved straight away that his newly-found fame wasn’t the result of some fluke collision with the mainstream. It reinforced his status as an iconoclast while launching him to further stardom, with cut-and-paste surrealist lyrics like “heads are hanging from the garbage man trees”, ‘Devil’s Haircut’ was an inspired collision of rap and rock reminiscent of disco classics like ‘Walk This Way’.

Having established such a high watermark with its opening gambit, Odelay very rarely dips below that standard for the rest of its running time. The lazy, low-slung country and funk collision ‘Hotwax’ and the rap/country hoedown of ‘Sissyneck’ reinforce the established impression of Beck as some kind of couch-dwelling, white-trash outsider (“writing my will on a $3 bill”) ; but this is contradicted by metropolitan, ultra-smart hip-hop-based cuts like lead single ‘Where It’s At’, in some ways the ultimate Beck track. The way the fourth “got two turntables and a microphone” chorus line suddenly blares out of the speakers in a robotic voice belies the heart of a musical prankster, willing to completely change musical direction even only for three seconds. ‘Novocane’, a dirty and grungey track delivered with an ersatz rap vocal by Beck, spoke directly to Generation X.

Sometimes, Beck plays things with a straighter bat to break up the pace – probably a good idea, or the album might have risked being too disorientating. The mellow, countrified soul of ‘Lord Only Knows’, played with just a hint of college rock in its delivery, is a delight, and the anxious, shimmering and sad ballad ‘Jack-Ass’, with bleak and evocative lyrics like “tying a noose in the back of my mind”, show Beck’s strengths as a pure songwriter rather than as a master of composition. ‘High 5 (Rock The Catskills)’ is pure hip-hop, even when its interrupted by a joyfully squealing coda originally heard at the end of ‘Novocane’. ‘Minus’ is a rather noisy and anomalous track built primarily from guitars in almost hardcore mode, but is enjoyable precisely because it stands out, even on an album of tracks that don’t musically all fit together.

Another highlight is the excellent single ‘The New Pollution’, recorded in the same sessions as ‘Devil’s Haircut’ and built on similar lines. An easy listening opening salvo is quickly gatecrashed by an irresistibly funky rhythm pinched straight from The Beatles’ ‘Taxman’ and rides it straight to the end. Beck croons his lyrics this time round, putting himself deliberately on a leash and letting the music do the talking, with some smoky saxophones clinching the deal at the end of every chorus.

Odelay is a musical mosaic, with each individual moment enjoyable on its own but making even greater sense as the sum of its parts, and best enjoyed as such. It won two Grammies, spawned a rash of MTV hits and eventually sold more than 2 million copies, but its underground critical acclaim has remained sky-high ever since it was released, making it one of those very rare albums that pretty much everybody agrees upon. Informing the rest of the ‘90s alternative scene by essentially smashing it to pieces and putting it back together again, Odelay was important in influencing the kaleidoscopic pop of Gorillaz, the skewed indie of The Beta Band, and hundreds of lo-fi bedroom artists from British nerd Tom Vek to the first recordings by LCD Soundsystem.

Beck himself was to later revisit these techniques on 2005’s highly entertaining Guero, and is rumoured to be doing so again on 2016’s forthcoming 10th album. In truth, he has always been a musical shapeshifter, with the countrified likes of Sea Change (2002) and Morning Phase (2014) existing in the same catalogue as 2008’s stripped-down soul affair Modern Guilt and 1999’s funk-flavoured Midnite Vultures. But rarely does he attempt to execute these jumps within an album itself – and maybe this is why Odelay has remained his finest work in the two decades since it was released.

Influenced: DJ Shadow, Animal Collective, The Beta Band, Gorillaz, LCD Soundsystem, Tom Vek

Influenced by: Sly & The Family Stone, Kraftwerk, Talking Heads, Prince, Beastie Boys, Mantronix

Listen to the deluxe edition of Odelay here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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