Like all great art, sometimes you need to take a few steps back to appreciate the genius of the work. Which is what happened to me with Beck’s Odelay. Never mind the two Grammys, the five hit singles, or the 2.5 million copies sold.
When it was released on June 18, 1996, I had trouble seeing Beck as anything more than a generational icon for a generation I wasn’t a part of. When “Loser” came out in 1994, I was charmed by the freewheeling Beat-speak, the trash culture non sequiturs and Dr. Seussian philosophy, but never thought for one minute that Beck believed he was a loser, despite the line “In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey.” Outcast certainly. Loser, never.
It was tongue-in-cheek self-mockery with a twangy hard-bop beat — and catchy as all hell. But when I sang along to the song on the radio, I made sure I always inserted the word “not” into the chorus, just in case the universe was listening. Or worse, myself. I had just graduated from college, was looking for a job, and the last thing I needed was to chisel away at my wobbly self-confidence. “I’m NOT a loser, so why don’t you kill me,” I would sing, like a sacred mantra, telling myself that I’d find work soon and everything was going to be all right.
What Beck told himself was another matter entirely. Nobody likes to strike gold, even if it’s mellow gold, with a song that you don’t particularly like, wish you’d put more time into and most importantly sung better.
“The raps and vocals are all first takes. If I’d known the impact it was going to make, I would have put something a little more substantial in it,” he told Blender. As a result he took excruciating care with Odelay, his follow-up to Mellow Gold, the album that yielded “Loser,” hiring the high ticket Dust Brothers — Mike Simpson and John King — to work with him, after they spoke following one of his Los Angeles shows. For their part, they were besotted by his showmanship, genre skipping and his skill with a leaf blower, something akin to what Iggy Pop used to do in the early Stooges. They said their good nights then out of the blue, without invitation or warning, the musician showed up at their Silver Lake Hills clubhouse-cum-studio with his off beat vinyl collection tucked under his arm and a passel of thrift shop instruments.
It took over a year to make Odelay , without any sort of system or real schedule, and guided only by Beck’s unruly outré imagination and sonic intuition
“We opened the door, let him in and just started listening to music together, and realized that we had very similar tastes.” Simpson told the U.K.’s Music Radar.
Before they knew it, listening turned into something else all together.
“We were making a record in a vacuum,” Simpson said. “Beck had notoriety and success from his single ‘Loser,’ but I think pretty much everyone had considered him a one hit wonder and no one really expected anything more from him.”
Except Simpson and King.
They worked tirelessly on what would become Odelay over the next year, without any sort of system or real schedule, guided only by Beck’s unruly outré imagination and sonic intuition. Tracks like “Devil’s Haircut” and “New Pollution” were written in a single day, yet “Hot Wax” took six months to complete.
But it’s “Hot Wax” that is the real heart of the album, the mission statement, or perhaps just Beck’s own brand of Hollywood metaphysics, from a snippet of “Jingle Bells,” to, after a rather psychedelic and out-of-body experience following an unnervingly quiet stretch of muzak, a child’s voice asks: “Who are you?”
“I am the Enchanting Wizard of Rhythm,” a voice answers.
“Why did you come here?”
“I came here to tell you about the rhythms of the universe.”
While most have thought it was Beck who did the disembodied spoken word, it was his friend Ross Harris, recreating a spoken-word section from the track “Universal Rhythms” by the Mandrill. But it’s more than just trivia, or a modern day version of Dorothy’s Wizard of Oz. It’s the use of bits and scraps of found objects and sounds that gave a louder, more eccentric voice to some of the things that were in Beck’s psyche and his past, using specific memories so off-handedly, not even thinking that they would resonate with anyone else. But they did. Like the five note sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind , these songs were a call to action to like-minded outcasts, who liked to look for mountains in their mashed potatoes or code in Beck’s lyrics. Like Jimi Hendrix before him, he was letting his freak flag fly, only it was a sombrero and a Nudie suit.
The use of samples is as disparate as it is brilliantly unexpected — but never so much as when Beck and the Dust Brothers raided Them’s second album, Them Again, for ideas. “Out of Sight” ended up on “Devil’s Haircut” while “Jack-Ass” got “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” But this Gen-Xers homage to classic rock didn’t end there: The MC5’s “I Can Only Give You Everything,” while not a direct sample but re-recorded and looped, underpinned “Devil’s Haircut” while Grand Funk Railroad‘s “Inside Looking Out” was part of the crazy chaos of “High Five.” A stilted dehumanized drum loop of Edgar Winter’s “When It Comes” makes an appearance in “Lord Only Knows,” and a dab of Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate” ended up in “Derelict.”
If you look at Odelay as if Beck is Rapunzel spinning straw into gold, shit into shinola, you have a new appreciation of what he did
While the ‘90s was the birth of recycling culture, Beck’s musical collagist tendencies owe more to his maternal grandfather Al Hansen who was part of the Fluxus art movement. Like punk rock that came 20 years after them, they considered themselves anti-art and had their own DIY ethos. They didn’t believe in the authority of museums to determine the value of art, or that you needed to be educated to understand it. They wanted it to not only be available to everyone, but they also wanted everyone to produce art at all times.
But the most radical thing about Fluxus was their reliance on the element of chance to shape the outcome of a piece. The thought that you should embark on a piece without having a conception of the eventual outcome. The almost quantum physics of creating was the key. Or to quote the sainted Neil Young, “The plan is there is no plan.”
In 1997, Beck reminisced with Rolling Stone about his “Rosebud,” moment concerning the course his life took. When he was five his grandfather came to stay with the family, bringing bags of junk, old magazines, refuse, found objects and most oddly old cigarette butts with him. They were things that he said that he used in his art pieces. After he settled in, he spied an old plastic rocking horse in a back room and offered his grandson $5 for it. Of course the tyke took it with glee. Shortly afterward, Beck came home from school and beheld what his grandfather did with his abandoned rocking horse. He lopped its head off, spray painted it silver and glued the nasty cigarette butts over the entire surface, in essence creating something as repulsive as it was fantastical, turning the ordinary into something extraordinary.
“It was this metallic headless monstrosity,” Beck remembered. “I think I was interested, but something within me recoiled as well. It was –- it was so raw: something so plain and forgotten suddenly transformed into this strange entity. At the time, it was more of a curiosity to me. But in retrospect, I think things of that nature gave me the idea, maybe subconsciously, that there were possibilities within the limitations of everyday life, with the things that we look at that are disposable. Our lives can seem so limited and uneventful, but these things can be transformed. We can appoint ourselves to be –- to be alchemists, turning shit into gold. So I always carried that with me.”
So if you look at Odelay as if Beck is Rapunzel spinning straw into gold, shit into shinola, you have a new appreciation of what he did. The unfiltered imagination, the confidence to let whatever flows through him keep flowing, even if the imagery is dire, dreary and pessimistic like a Charles Bukowski poem. It’s where greatness lies. Not just in the results, the infectious choruses, the catchy phraseology such as “Two turntables and a microphone” but the ability to just jump in and see where chance and providence might take you. It’ll take you everywhere.