By: Chris Thompson
Twenty years after its release, we take a look back at the “new pollution,” and the pop genius of Beck’s award winning album, Odelay….
Looking back on the summer of 1996, I can remember with fondness, driving the backroads of my hometown, cruising from one teenage affair to the other with the radio friendly singles off Beck’s Odelay pouring out of my car’s speakers like ice cold shit beer from a keg on a warm night.
“Invite me to the seven seas like some seasick maaaaaaan,” I’d sing at the top of my lungs, the windows on my red Honda hatchback down and the perfumed, humid New England air washing over me in waves of carefree attitudes and expectant wonder for the months ahead. “You will do whatever you please, and I’ll do whatever I caaaaaan.”
“Lord Only Knows” was the name of that song, an early track on Odelay, and its chorus “Lord only knows it’s getting late / Your senses are gone so don’t you hesitate,” was responsible for more than a few bold – and now with the gift of maturity and twenty years of hindsight – stupid actions on my part. But that’s all part of growing up, right? Part of the teenage, nay the human, experience? You find a song, an album, an artist, something that you wholly identify with in a moment, and suddenly for a few weeks out of the long arc of your life, if not longer, you and that music merge. Combine your paths, the music serving to amplify your experiences and becoming the soundtrack to your days and your nights. Your highs and your lows. And for a fleeting moment, it’s as if you are seeing the world in a whole new light, one more full of potential and the promise of wonder and acclaim.
Beck’s Odelay was the album that did that for me. It was the second official studio album from the multi-instrumentalist performer and continued the musical stylings that made Beck’s debut album Mellow Gold such a success. Most importantly, it was a success rich with the absurdity of Beck’s lyrics mixed with the genius of his songwriting, instrumentals and vocal delivery. Yet one factor that set out to distance Odelay from Mellow Gold, and chart for the album an altogether different course to esteem, was the fact that Odelay was produced by the Dust Brothers, lending its songs the elements of the production duo’s hip-hop stylings and rich layering. Not to mention a disposable, pop-hit, radio friendly quality to the majority of Odelay’s songs which only served to increase its appeal. Who alive then, and even now, in the era of streaming music, hasn’t sung along to such stirring hits as “Where It’s At,” “Devil’s Haircut,” and “The New Pollution”?
In the summer of the 1996 I had just graduated from high school, and the uncertainty of college was still several months off. That final summer back home was the bridge that connected one shore (everything that I had ever known) with the opposite one (where the land of everything that I had yet to experience in my life awaited me). And I was damn sure that I was going to have as much fun as I could possibly have, and maybe even burn that bridge some in the process, before I had to cross over to that unexplored land. All that lay between me and that far off intangible was about a thousand beers and the carefree promise of endless laughter and hijinks with my friends. Camaraderie and jokes and good times consummated around the fire pit, upon someone’s back deck, the seashore, the back of a car under a wide-open canopy of stars or the darkened basements we’ve all lost hours of our lives to. I was eighteen and invincible, and Beck’s latest salvo of smart-lipped teenage slacker anthems were like fuel for my unapologetic and narrow minded fire. Like Morrison says in one of my all time favorite Doors songs, “For the music is your special friend / Dance on fire as it intends,” and with Odelay, and the weeks that remained before I left my little circle of the world, I intended to take those words to heart.
Pitchfork’s Ryan Domabl refers to Odelay as “[sounding] like the world’s most accomplished demo reel – an introductory smorgasbord pumped-up on its own premeditated randomness.” It’s true that there is a certain randomness to Odelay that cannot be ignored (or to this day, repeated). But that randomness is more than offset by the casual effortlessness with which Beck and the Dust Brothers drift the album’s songs between genres, like an elderly driver taking their time changing lanes. Everything flows smoothly on Odelay, segueing seamlessly from garage rock to folk and country to old-school rap and electro, and that effortlessness is a large part of what drew me like a moth to its musical flame.
One of my favorite songs off of Odelay, “Hotwax,” was my summer anthem that year. It’s the kind of song that demands your attention. How can you not love a song interspersed by a slick harmonica jam and backed up by turntables and a catchy guitar riff that felt like it was torn from a ‘Stones song? Not to mention it being flush with obscure, toe tapping samples and bold, playful lyrics such as “I am the enchanted wizard of rhythm,” or “Stealing pesos out of my brain,” or one of my all time favorites: “All my days I got the grizzly words.” “Hotwax” was the sort of song that if you tried to force any more genres into it, it would go musical supernova, blowing off its inspirations like a shroud of stellar gas, only to be replaced by a singular, rapidly spinning musical black hole. The song felt more complex than in actuality. “Hotwax” had weight. As if its every note was a tangible. A palpable force that could be measured and tested and contemplated.
Just as 1994’s Mellow Gold had “Loser” as the song that defined the album and put Beck on the map, Odelay’s “Where It’s At” was the song that made sure the world knew that Beck wasn’t just some one hit wonder. That he was more than a momentary voice that had smartly tapped into the slacker ethos of the 90s’ culture, or a generation’s consolation prize for the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. I’d never imagined it was possible to eclipse the success of “Loser’s” chorus, but then Beck went and gave us “I’ve got two turntables and a microphone,” essentially blasting his appeal and his draw around the world. The song was a massive, radio-friendly hit that helped to ease Odelay’s reach not only into the top of the charts in the US, but for the first time in the UK as well. The Dust Brothers fingerprints are all over this song and it shows. Previously known at the time for their sublime work with the Beastie Boys on the legendary Paul’s Boutique and the Young MC’s debut album Stone Cold Rhymin’, the duo of E.Z. Mike and King Gizmo brought their sample-based musical approach A-game to “Where It’s At.” Their talents are dripping from the song, and a number of the more notable samples come from an obscure sex-education album called Sex for Teens (Where It’s At). Beck won a Grammy for Best Male Rock Performance for “Where It’s At” and Beck’s vocals and instrumentals mixed with the Dust Brother’s rich programing and turntables came together to form the perfect musical storm that year.
With it’s poppy and light-heartedly sung “Doo-doo-da-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo” intro to its defining saxophone riff sampled from tenor sax player Joe Thomas’s song “Venus,” “New Pollution” is exactly what it states itself to be. And few songs make me want to dance like this one does. The song is a “new pollution,” a new sound, vying for attention and to wrest the well-entrenched notions of what a song, and an album like Odelay, can be like from those who purported to call themselves the guardians of the musical status quo in the 90s’. That Odelay is an album that was never successfully imitated by Beck’s contemporaries is a nod to the its vast range and endless depths of sampling. Not to mention the fact that it would be almost impossible to pull an album like Odelay off today considering the cost prohibitive nature of sampling in modern times. “New Pollution” is the song that sticks the flag in the grounds of the new lands Beck was simultaneously creating and conquering, firmly establishing that Odelay and songs like “New Pollution” were setting themselves up for an endless, lasting appeal.
“Jack Ass” is still to this day one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. It reminds me of a song a blues rock band of the ‘60s might have written had its members all been born in the ‘70s and come into young adulthood in the ‘90s. It’s a throwback nod to the past sang with a ‘90s slacker mentality. Its expert sampling of Them’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” is the kind of genius merging of past and present that illustrates why Becks appeal draws such range. “I remember the way that you smiled when the gravity shackles went wild / Something is vacant when I think it is all beginning,” Beck mournfully croons. “I’ve been drifting in the same stay old shoes / Loose ends tying a noose in the back of my mind.” “Jack Ass” is simultaneously reflective and professive, suggestive of a tethering to the past when one is trying to move forward and leave that past behind. It’s like a voice from the past reaching into the present and propelling one into the future.
That summer in 1996, as I teetered on the verge of a newfound independence and the promise of the undiscovered country that awaited me somewhere out there in a nebulous future I’d yet to create, I remember being overcome with both a sadness for what I was leaving behind, and an anxious excitement for what I was about to experience. I remember thinking upon hearing, and digesting, Beck’s lyrics that he had it all figured out. He’d come off the success of Mellow Gold and its unexpected slacker anthem “Loser” with a new perspective on life. The past was an anchor, something that was always threatening to either drown you or make sure that you never broke free of the path you were going down. But the future was unwritten, and free to bend to your will. All you had to do was decide if you were going to be a part of the “Old Pollution,” with its arcane rules and its fears and prejudice and complacency that labors to hold you back, or the “New Pollution,” like how each track off of Odelay twists genre conventions, forcing the listener to reevaluate their perceptions and surroundings in the search for a new truth, which I feel is a big part of what being alive, and participating in life, is really all about.
That the efforts of the Dust Brothers and Beck were able come together in 1996 to create a truly inspiring piece of art is a blessing. With the Dust Brothers providing their accents of sonic color to Beck’s ever-changing palate of full spectrum sound, an album like Odelay was bound to emerge. The album is a unique experience that has no contemporary. It’s a marvel all unto its own, and even twenty years later its sound still feels fresh and inspired. The album features some of Beck’s best work and it’s wonderful to think that with the release of his latest single “Wow” this year, that Beck might be gearing up to give us something new that feels like it’s right at home in Odelay’s bailiwick.
For me, the vast majority of these Twenty Years Later articles that I write are an exercise in revisiting a past version of myself. The period of time we are running through now finds me on the verge of monumental change. Segueing from the comfort and relative safety of all I’d ever known onto a road not traveled. In that version of myself I’m in my late teens, about to leave everything I’ve ever known up until then for college in another state. It was a wondrous time to be alive that summer, as the days were carefree and the time was mine to do with what I pleased. But lurking behind all that amusement was a current of seriousness. A ribbon of reality that wouldn’t let me forget that all of this would soon change. That summer wouldn’t have been as fun, or as memorable, if Beck and Odelay hadn’t been riding shotgun beside me as we drove on down those back country roads, reminding me that the future was mine to make, and that it wouldn’t be all that bad to drift into another lane and experience a little bit of change.