Odelay Turns 20
Beck was not a sure thing. “Loser” felt like a generation-defining song even as it was cresting in 1994, but it did not feel like the start of anything. Beck Hansen himself cut a fascinating figure: a goofy LA culture-vulture kid who had old-school conceptual-art connections and a bottomless collection of thrift-shop T-shirts. He was cute, and the Beastie Boys liked him, so there was hope that he would become something larger. But he also had Mellow Gold, an album that seemed determined to kill whatever career momentum “Loser” might’ve started. The same year he released Mellow Gold, he also released two indie albums — one of tape-collage experiments, one of dusty folk tunes — that felt like attempts to repel whatever fairweather fans might’ve stuck around after “Loser.” (Mellow Gold somehow still went platinum, but I always pictured Sam Goody execs looking at spreadsheets and wondering why the hell One Foot In The Grave and Stereopathic Soulmanure weren’t moving any units.) In the summer of ’95, I watched Beck hold down an early-afternoon slot on the Lollapalooza mainstage. He seemed sloppy and disheveled and utterly dwarfed by the size of the stage — not even remotely ready to be out there, even on a show where Sonic Youth would headline a few hours later. For a while there, Beck seemed like he was actively trying to disappear. Instead, he turned himself into a star, and he did it with Odelay.
Odelay was the moment Beck put it all together. All the strains that already existed in his music were there: the nonsensical word-salad lyrics, the befuddled slack-jawed quasi-rapping, the duct-taped-together breakbeats, the blurts of enervating noise, the dustbowl-folk acoustic guitars. And somehow, Beck put all these things together and turned them into pop. He did it with the help of the Dust Brothers, the sample-happy producers who had helped the Beastie Boys turn from party-monster novelties into junk-culture-addled aesthetes on Paul’s Boutique. But I wonder if Paul’s Boutique isn’t a red herring in the story of Odelay. To me, it seems just as likely that Beck recruited the Dust Brothers because of their other big production credit: Tone L?c’s semi-forgotten crossover-rap opus L?c-ed After Dark. That album, more than Paul’s Boutique, might’ve shown Beck that these guys knew how to turn sampled guitars into pop gold, and that they knew what to do with a rapper who wasn’t altogether confident in his own rapping. It also would’ve shown him that they knew a couple of things about one-hit wonderdom. (To be fair, L?c-ed After Dark did have two big hits on it. It had “Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina.”)
With these guys, Beck figured out ways to streamline his sound without dumbing it down. It took forever, to the point where it’s been theorized that the album’s title is a pun on “oh, delay.” Or maybe it’s not streamlined, exactly. Maybe Beck just figured out how to stop getting in his own way. There are big hooks all over Odelay, and the only song that doesn’t really work as a car-radio singalong is the Silver Apples-esque noise-bloops hidden track. “Where It’s At,” the first single, has lyrics that even make sense, albeit intermittently! (It was basically Beck’s version of “Love Shack.”) But even without that, Beck’s whole lost-kid-adrift-on-cable-TV thing struck a zeitgeist-y chord. This was before the internet was something that everyone had to have in every home — I think my parents finally signed up for dial-up America Online around the same time that Odelay came out — but the idea that we were drowning in an overwhelming amount of culture was still somehow a major talking point. And Beck made that sound cool. He sounded happy and at home there.
It’s hard to overstate the level to which this whole aesthetic — sloppy sample-a-delic funk, interrupted by random shards of cultural flotsam and occasional guitar riffs — felt like the future in 1996. Beck seemed to be speaking some secret language, making a line like “you never lose in your razorblade shoes” sound like Tarantino-esque referential opacity rather than utter nonsense. (In reality, it wasn’t really either of those. It was a bunch of words that sounded good together and meant nothing. Beck was good at that.) People immediately received Odelay like it was a work of genius. It’s the only time I can remember SPIN giving a perfect-10 review to a non-reissue album. And Beck immediately became an MTV fixture, not too different from how Kurt Cobain had been one a few years earlier. For the post-Cobain moment, Beck was a near-perfect figurehead. We’d seen people, Cobain especially, completely broken down by the strangeness of mass adulation. We’d seen a generation of musicians trying and failing to combine their punk-reared senses of ethics with the strange new weird-is-cool-now reality they were facing. Beck was different. He’d never been punk, except maybe accidentally. And he didn’t react to his quickly growing fame with that same fear or self-incrimination. Instead, he just shambled into it, blinking slowly like someone waking up from a hangover on a too-sunny day. It was like he didn’t think it was real. It was like he thought nothing was real.
Of course, that whole aesthetic did not turn out to be the future, except in a very short-term sense. For a couple of years after Odelay, everyone sounded like Beck. His whole sound was all over the radio. And then, not long after, it was gone. The whole episode reminds me of this AV Club piece about Scream, a movie that revitalized and briefly dominated the horror genre. For a while, a new Scream ripoff seemed to come out every week. And these days, horror movies show absolutely zero Scream influence. It was a moment, and it passed. So in this analogy, Beck is Scream, Soul Coughing are I Know What You Did Last Summer, and G. Love & Special Sauce are Urban Legend or something. Maybe Primitive Radio Gods’ “Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand” is Halloween H2O — something way better than it should’ve been. And then maybe the wave-crushing Limp Bizkit are The Blair Witch Project. Maybe I’ve completely lost control of this analogy.
Beck, of course, has a built-to-last career, but he’s remade himself as a rootsy, credible songwriter, all but retiring the funk-addled prankster side of his persona. For a while, Beck seemed like he was indulging side-project impulses when he’d make a downbeat, serious album like Mutations. These days, that seems like the real him, and when he comes out with a song like “Wow,” that’s the outlier. When Beck reunited with the Dust Brothers nine years after Odelay to make Guero, it didn’t work the same way — partly because changing sampling laws had made it too expensive to grab whatever shit they could find, but probably also partly because that of-the-moment energy was gone. If you had to trace the influence of Odelay, you could follow it down some strange pathways. After all, a year after Odelay, the Dust Brothers produced Hanson’s single “MMMBop,” which took bits of the Odelay sound and remade them into giddy Jackson 5-esque pop nonsense. “MMMBop” was the beginning of the teen-pop revolution, and if you squint your ears hard enough, you can hear tiny five-times-removed leftovers of Beck’s sound in something like LFO’s “Summer Girls.”
But for a while, Beck completely lived up to everyone’s expectations of him. He played that role beautifully. Two years after that hapless Lollapalooza set, I watched Beck headline a radio-station festival at DC’s RFK Stadium, and he was fucking transformative — walking with a cane and still doing James Brown dances, getting tens of thousands to play along with his knowingly silly call-and-response chants. I’ll argue that Beck’s finest moment was Midnite Vultures, the 1999 album where he pushed his ironic-funkateer sensibility all the way to the breaking point. But then the world changed, and the kind of detachment we hear on Odelay became as dated as the instructional records that Beck loved to sample. Today, I’d argue that the moments on Odelay that aged best are the most conventional ones: The overdriven MC5 riff on “Devil’s Haircut,” the glimmering and sincere beauty of “Jack-Ass.” The other stuff is still fun, but it sounds very much like 1996. It’s trapped in its moment.
So Odelay is not a timeless record. But that doesn’t take away from what it was, from how perfect it sounded in that moment. So I’ll end this thing with a personal story about the moment I really connected with Odelay. Through most of high school, I spent summers working at a camp for kids with disabilities, way the hell up in the Catoctin Mountains of Western Maryland, which felt like another planet. Once every couple of weeks, my cabin — four staff members, maybe six kids — would head out to an even-more-remote spot in the woods to roast marshmallows and sleep in a tent for one night. One of those nights, there was a terrible rainstorm, and the wheelchair-lift van sent to pick us up got stuck in the mud. So we couldn’t go anywhere, and since we had to put rolled-up sleeping bags up against the tent walls so that it wouldn’t flood, there wasn’t enough room in the giant tent for all of us.
I was the youngest, so I had to sleep on a picnic table under a canopy, with no walls to stop the rain from blowing in. But I had a boom box and a dubbed cassette copy of Odelay. And I spent that night, unable to sleep and freezing-wet, but not even thinking about how fucking uncomfortable I was. I had Odelay. I listened to it over and over, marveling over the weird oblique little hooks and the way one track would slide seamlessly into the next. I’d already liked it, but that album clicked in a big way that night. (I found out the next morning that the tent had flooded anyway and that all the other staff guys had stayed up all night, literally bailing water out of the tent, having one of the shittiest nights of their lives.) Odelay might not have left the seismic lasting impact on music that people thought it would. But it did save my night.