Two years after his so-called one-hit wonder, “Loser,” graced Mellow Gold, Beck unleashed a country/folk/rock/garbage apocalypse. The album was called Odelay.
Odelay might be the world’s saddest, most dance influenced rock album, but initially, it was going to be a strictly sad album. Still recovering from the death of his grandfather, Beck was intent on recording a slow, acoustic album of mourning. However, Odelay became something far different when Beck signed up to work with master producers The Dust Brothers, who have a recognizable sample-heavy style and are the producers of the earlier Beastie Boys masterpiece, Paul’s Boutique.
Though Beck had experimented with samples several times before, the Brothers clearly influenced the album, resulting in a sound akin to the greatest rock concert ever held in a scrap yard.
The first single, “Where It’s At,” is littered with interjections sampled from an outdated sexual education recording appropriately titled “Sex for Teens: (Where It’s At).” Elsewhere Beck and the Brothers lift a guitar riff to form the rolling backbone for “Jack-Ass,” a rock ballad that ends with a sweet harmonica solo set and the sound of a donkey braying. Though the album is sample heavy, there is a power in the way the countless clips are deftly arranged and interwoven. They never feel “stolen” as much as they feel ”reused with love.”
Odelay is never afraid to be weird. In fact, the opposite is true. It is an album terrified by complacency. The opening track, “Devil’s Haircut,” is a straightforward-seeming rock song that spontaneously ends with Beck exploding into increasingly sporadic screams as the guitars dissolve into pure, horrible noise. During the next song, “Hotwax,” he takes a break from rapping to calmly remind a bewildered woman that he is “the enchanting wizard of rhythm … here to tell you about the rhythms of the universe.”
Every song has a twist, each corner hides a surprise, yet it never seems like gimmickry. After the initial shock of each surprise wears off, there are a million reasons to come back for more.
One of the reasons is the density and weight of the album’s lyrics. The album favors evocative imagery over concrete narratives. “Mouthwash, jukebox, gasoline” barks Beck midway through “Devil’s Haircut.” These images alone don’t tell listeners a story, but the way they all relate does.
Rust, garbage, things that were tech but are now trashy are the things Beck writes about. Through these images, through stolen sound bites and clippings, through searing bouts of static, Odelay shares the story of a society filled with vanity, one about to be overrun by the landfills, stuffed to the brim with waste. Every song, exists to remind listeners that they, with our “cigarettes on each arm” and their “carburetors tied to the moon” are “the new pollution.” Soon they will have to dance through the garbage.
Though its message is dark, the music balances it well. There are just as many party-ready tracks as there are downtrodden dirges, and even when the album ricochets back and forth between the two it never feels abrupt or unnatural. The consistent quality and depth of sound entertain no matter what.
Fifteen years after its release, Odelay is still the highlight of Beck’s terrific career. Though sample-heavy music may never feel as fresh as it did in the ’90s, Odelay holds up, still rocks and still delivers an important message. .
On the latter half of the album, Beck sings: “My bags are waiting in the next life.” I just hope I remember to pack Odelay.