Our Album of the Month is Beck's landmark Odelay, an album that found him shedding his Gen-X slacker persona for something more like the Beck we've known these last 20 years; a genre-bending iconoclast who's one of this generation's most enduring icons. by Eric Sundermann
It feels extremely weird to write about a moment in which Beck—fucking Beck, man—had to “prove it.” This is an artist who’s demonstrated his talent over and over again in his career—beyond just acting as an influence for a generation of musicians and music listeners, Beck is an artist who’s helped define what it means to be a fan of music. Writing something like that feels a bit corny, yes, but this is a person known for his fearlessness and his resolute individuality. Whether you enjoy the music he’s created or not, it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t achieved icon status—right there with your Thom Yorkes, your Jeff Tweedys, your Stevie Nickses, your other artists known for blowing up and reconfiguring with the medium. Beck is just… Beck. It’s difficult to remember a time in which he didn’t exist, and in which that sentence didn’t actually make sense.
But every story has a beginning, and despite his radio success before his second studio record, Beck’s story might actually begin with Odelay. It’s easy to forget now, but as American culture moved into the late-90s, dealing with the invasion of JNCO Jeans and early, early tastes of Scott Stapp’s warble, the idea of what was “cool” was fleeting, or rather, being redefined. Kurt Cobain had died in 1994. MTV was beginning to enter its last phase as a music tastemaker, before it started airing exclusively reality shows. And so when Beck arrived with Odelay in 1996, a record that kind of encapsulates every weird sound and attitude of that time, he was unknowingly delivering a product that would shortly come to define an era of baggy shorts, middle-parted hair, and those couple years when the line between ironic and honest appreciation became irreparably blurred. And whether we admit it or not, there had been a hole left by the loss of Kurt. And whether he wanted to fill it or not, Beck assumed the role.
From a musical standpoint, Beck’s Odelay is the moment in which the singer-songwriter (and rapper? Are we supposed to call Beck a rapper? I don’t ever want to call Beck a rapper) figured out what he was trying to accomplish with his art. “Loser” had been a Top 10 song in 1994 (around the time Kurt Cobain killed himself), yes, but Beck hadn’t really done shit otherwise (although it’s quite funny to think that having Top 10 hit isn’t “doing shit.”) The musician had released a couple confusing independent projects (an electronic hodgepodge of a record and a breezy folk album) after his underwhelming debut Mellow Gold. It was clear this was a guy with buckets and buckets of talent, but it was also clear that he didn’t really know how to focus that talent, or to, really, get out of his own way.
So he got some help. For Odelay, Beck enlisted the Dust Brothers (Beastie Boys, Tone Loc, and Young MC), a production duo that specialized in streamlining complication into simplification. And so the team began work on figuring out Beck. It took a minute—he started recording songs immediately after the release of Mellow Gold in 1994 (and the title is, according to Stephen Malkmus, a wordplay on how long it took Beck to release the record, “Oh, Delay”)—but it’s clear now that the time was spent cycling through so many different ideas of what he wanted to be as an artist. Listening to Odelay now, it’s hard to pin it down into a genre, with the record giving tastes of folk, country, grunge, electronic, noise rock, hip-hop, and more (labeling Beck projects by genre is a fun sport for music dorks). But one thing is certain: this album is ‘90s as shit. Tracks like “Sissyneck,” “Devil’s Haircut,” and “Where It’s At” are as close to sonic time capsules that you can get. Even though Odelay attempts to be all over the place, there’s still cohesiveness to the record.
Critically, all of this hard work and defining paid off. Beck was immediately received as a Gen X genius. Odelay was a weird, strange exploration of a hodgepodge of sound that, at the same time, used irony as a device for cultural commentary. Beck became obsessed with showing us how Americans were oversaturated with media (which, considering this album existed nearly two decades before the peak of Twitter, is kind of a comical thing to think about) and how that was affecting how we processed emotion. He used vocoders, soft rapping, whatever it is that makes a guitar sound like a chainsaw, etc. all as ways to get his point across. This was a time period—the height of the Clinton administration, before 9/11 and the patriotic nationalism that would swallow the 2000s—that was seeing the start of the technology revolution. The idea of global communication was no longer fiction. It was becoming a reality. And Beck, like some sort of prophet, seemed to understand the dark underbelly that these “improvements” might bring.
We can talk about how this record was impressive from a sonic standpoint. After all, the ability to pull together subgenre after subgenre is one that should not be understated or devalued. We can also talk about how Beck’s playful lyricism was innovative. His self-aware lines show that he understood his weaknesses and how to turn those into strengths. How that type of mentality would go on to define a generation of post- post- post- modern–modern–modern hipsters. But really, this dude acted cooler than you because he just was cooler than you. When the mainstream recognized him—through Grammy awards (of which Odelay won two) and MTV spots and whatever other form of media for which he could be used as a mascot—he accepted graciously. But he also offered this feeling that you weren’t quite sure whether or not he was taking it too seriously. And he probably made a ton of money while doing it. When you think about it for a moment, Beck’s carefree approach to this all while still accepting the success is one of the most punk things an artist can do.
In a lot of ways, this is the type of attitude that would come to define the next generation of artists and musicians, and the generation of artists and musicians that followed, and then whatever we’re calling the generation of artists and musicians we’re seeing today. Beck was one of the early doubters of technology, one of the few able to see through the formulaic happiness and recognize that this shit could ruin our lives. He was unafraid to challenge it, but still seemed so carefree while doing so, offering non-sensical sentences that kind of comment on day-to-day life without actually commenting on day-to-day life (see “Where It’s At,” Odelay’s hit, with “move through the room like ambulance drivers / shine your shoes with your microphone blues / hirsute with your parachute fruits”). This didn’t make any actual sense, but that’s what was so appealing about it.
Odelay is probably, with the possible exception of Mellow Gold, the Beck album that is most stuck in the amber of its time. But that shouldn’t be viewed as a negative. The so-90s-it-hurts production by the Dust Brothers has a lot to do with this—they produced “MMMBop” for Hanson the year after Odelay--but it’s one of the most enjoyable and admirable traits of the record. The ‘90s have been decried as being entirely mined and tapped out for nostalgia hunters that the era is “over” in terms of being even ironically appreciated. But the ‘90s are still being picked over because it was an era that was so full of identity and individuality that is impossible to forget. Odelay was an album that fit those times so perfectly. Beck would go on to redefine himself multiple times throughout his career, and would deliver more varied and diverse records, but the confidence that exudes from Odelay would go unmatched.
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