Beck Odelay at 20: the chameleon of chaos who side-stepped convention

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Beck (credit Facebook)

As Beck’s Odelay gets a 20th anniversary reissue alongside Sea Change and Guero, Getintothis‘ Andy Holland questions if the pop polymath would even get the chance in contemporary pop.

Beck has always been eclectic; a manic, musical grasshopper. Even when starting out as folk-blues singer his approach was far from purist; he’d muddy the waters by interrupting his songs with over-distorted guitars, bits of narration from old B-movies, break-beats, bursts of ear-splitting feedback, white noise, and scratchy bits of other people’s music.

His early albums sounded like they’d been recorded on a budget of change recovered from a biscuit-tin, but his imagination, sense of humour, and rich musicality still shone through. And, his records were the spirit of pure old weird Americana.

He found the zeitgeist with a record called Loser, a mutant slab of country blues and hip hop he put together with producer Carl Stephenson, transforming him overnight into an icon of the slacker aesthetic. He even looked the part, striding around in the video looking like Jason Mewes from Clerks, which wasn’t even out yet. Before too long, however, Loser threatened to become a burden, falling victim to its own success.

The problem was the song morphed into legend before a lot of people had even heard it. The phrase “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me” initially sold more t-shirts than records. It was such a cool chorus. There was such a buzz about the track that Beck achieved something that was unprecedented at the time; Geffen were so desperate to get their hands on the record that they signed a deal which enabled him to release records on other, smaller labels if he wanted to (well, in theory… more about that later).

Perplexingly though, the accompanying album that emerged didn’t contain anything else that resembled it. Like Beck’s previous albums, Mellow Gold contained a mixture of low-key fucked-up folk/blues songs, psychotic lo-fi grunge, homemade hip hop, and pound-shop Prince. Those who were established Beck fans loved it, but it was always unlikely to convince many new ones. The truth was Loser had been Carl Stephenson as much as Beck.  Listen to Stephenson’s Forest For The Trees album now and it sounds like a blueprint for Beck’s Odelay (the release of Forest For The Trees was delayed for four years, weakening its impact considerably).

The recording of a suitable follow-up to Mellow Gold was delayed by a series of events and personal tragedies, including the death of Beck’s beloved grand-father and source of much inspiration. Henceforth, Beck began writing some deep, personal, and downbeat material. Some of this would eventually appear on a later more sombre album, Sea Change, but perhaps he instinctively knew that his newly found hard-won fans wouldn’t be ready for it yet.

As time went by critics began to speculate that Beck didn’t have it in him to record anything as successful as Loser ever again, that he was the real life slacker his records suggested him to be. They were wrong of course, he just needed to find his bearings.

The problem was that Beck was never an artist that neatly fitted into a specific marketing strategy. Record labels like their artists to be easily definable because it makes their lives a lot easier. Of course, as Beck became more established people got used to the fact that he was at least two kinds of artists; one, the extrovert, performing random, freaky, ‘fucked-up’, grungy hip hop, and the other, the introverted folk/blues musician, performing meditative, melancholic, ‘fucked-up’ folk music. But these were early days, and no one had twigged any of that quite yet.

Time, however, was ripe for the extrovert Beck to emerge. This began to take shape quickly when Beck met The Dust Brothers. They were already proven to be ace producers, had a rock solid, hip hop pedigree, owing to their work with the iconic Tone Loc, and they had just made The Beastie Boys credible. The Beasties had previously been regarded as something of a juvenile party band, but thanks to the The Dust Brothers, they were now being heralded by the serious rock critics, having recorded a bona fide, post modern classic; a bricolage of samples and rhymes, Paul’s Boutique.

When the The Dust Brothers got together with Beck, they recognised his free-wheeling, offbeat talent immediately. They also shared the same sense of humour, all three being as random and goofball as each other. To understand the resultant Odelay, it has to be recognised for what it actually is: a hip hop album. It shares a lot of the same characteristics as some of the great hip hop albums being made during the early to mid-90s, which was an era rich in creativity and imagination. This was thanks in part to the massive strides being made in sampling technology and on account of some of the extraordinary musicians who were using it.

Anyone who doubts this should check out albums like Kool Keith’s Dr Octagon releases, Jeru The Damaja’s The Sun Rises In The East, The Goat’s Trick Of The Shade, Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus, and so on.  And they’re merely the ones that immediately spring to mind.

Odelay, Sea Change and Guero have been reissued

Odelay, Sea Change and Guero have been reissued

Odelay as an album could only be made by an American, and references to US culture and its trash aesthetic are heard throughout. It seemed that anything Beck heard on the records The Dust Brothers played him could be a source of inspiration, particularly if it sounded, as they termed it, “not cool“. The three would frequently use samples that “didn’t belong together” just for the hell of it, and Beck would frequently surprise everybody by reproducing riffs that he heard on seemingly any musical instrument he could get his hands on. Although tracks like Devil’s Haircut were sample based (I Can Only Give You Everything by Them, the drumbeat from the track was sampled from Them’s version of James Brown’s Out of Sight), it was Beck himself who played the distinctive guitar riff. Beck’s DIY years had served him well; all that multi-tracking on his four-track finally paid off.

During the recording Beck purchased a second-hand sitar and tambura and then used both to record Derelict the same day. It sounded like nothing he had ever done before or since. Occasionally Beck didn’t use conventional instruments at all; he’d use the sound of toy walkie-talkies, phones, or anything noisy he could pick up from a local store.

At times Odelay teeters on the absolute brink of chaos but always pulls itself back, and that’s what makes the album so pleasurable to listen to. It’s impossible on first listen to predict the direction any of the tracks will take.  The Dust Brothers have claimed that they couldn’t think of anything too extreme for Beck to try that he wouldn’t willingly do – sometimes he’d go far further than they expected. They hadn’t experienced this with any other artist, nor had they met anybody capable of playing so many different musical instruments.

When Odelay was finally released, critics were united in their praise for it; Beck could do no wrong. Even at the time the man himself seemed guarded about it, realising that his being flavour-of-the-month was transitory.  Although his next album, Mutations, garnered some positive reviews, they were more muted than those he received for Odelay. The truth was that Beck didn’t want Mutations to be regarded as the follow-up to Odelay. It was a different style of album, so he wanted it to be released through Bong Load, but when Geffen heard it they decided to renege on the deal they had with Beck and to release it themselves. Such was his annoyance, he even filed a law-suit against Geffen at the time.

Nevertheless, a positive thing emerged from the two albums being released by the same label. It established the fact that Beck was no ordinary artist; he refused to be pinned down. It cemented his status as a musical explorer, an individualist who was dedicated to following his muse. With Mutations he explored tropicalia, country, psychedelia, blues, sometimes all within the same song. Mutations couldn’t remotely be described as a hip hop album though.

In fact, Beck wouldn’t properly revisit hip hop again until Guero – again with The Dust Brothers – in 2005, although Midnite Vultures was occasionally heavily sample-based. Serious record collectors began embracing Beck, feeling that he belonged in the same canon of respectable musicians as the likes of Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart, David Byrne, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, and this appreciation has carried through to the present day.

Although Guero was hip hop oriented, it differed from Odelay because Beck had explored other musical genres in the interim period and this had left a mark on his style. Furthermore, he was living in the Mexican district of Los Angeles, and the album is heavily influenced by that too. Like Odelay, Guero opens with Beck’s fuzz guitar, but the track that follows is heavy on the bongos, and more alternative rock than psychedelic. In fact, these two styles are very present on Guero.

Beck was listening to a lot of South American music, particularly Brazilian Tropicalia. Rumour has it that Mutations was named in tribute to legendary Brazilian psychedelic band Os Mutantes, and there were some forays into the style on that album, but none as extreme as on Guero. Beck was also digging Tom Zè during the Guero period, Zè was one of the most eccentric exponents of the genre who, like Beck, loved to use found sounds in his recordings, and experiment with unusual, sometimes downright odd instrumentation (anyone who loves psychedelic music needs to own Zè’s 1968 album Grande Liquidação).

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Like Odelay, Guero uses a wide palette. Black Tambourine, as the title suggests, is a dark track yet it moves at a fast, percussive pace – you can tell The Dust Brothers had a lot of fun putting it together. Tracks like Broken Drum are more reflective and atmospheric, Earthquake Weather is soulful and hook laden, and on Què Onda Guero, Beck raps away on a classic break-beat, surrounded by samples of heavily accented Mexican-American conversations. Guero also has plenty of Beck’s great slide-guitar playing, as well as some very impressive blues harp (Farewell Ride actually sounds like an ancient blues song).

Beck’s instinctive way with a 60s style pop tune is on display on a number of tracks, including Rental Car which oddly resembles The Swingle Singers halfway through. Guero is not quite as chaotic as Odelay though; it’s still fun, but it doesn’t have the same just-for-the-hell-of-it nature. In many ways it’s a more refined work without sounding as fresh.

Beck has made a habit of following his forays into modern technology with albums that are more acoustic and organic. Sea Change came as quite a shock to many people when it was released. Beck had never been able to shake the image that Loser had established, and many still believed that he was that gonzoid long-hair that they’d seen in that video. Odelay had actually solidified that in their minds; much as it’s a great album, it is also one that appears to be hipster and ironic. A common criticism of his work (read, for example, Robert Christgau) is that it can come across as emotionally disengaged and Beck himself has spoken about his unwillingness to dump his ‘baggage’ on his listeners. Yet albums like Sea Change defy such criticism. The songs on it are deeply personal, written after his break-up from his long-term girlfriend, and easily relatable.

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Sea Change showed Beck capable of writing personal and affecting songs (credit Facebook)

Coming immediately after his most extrovert album, the Prince-esque Midnite Vultures, (for which Beck even shaked his funky ass on stage, did James Brown style splits, and sang horny lyrics sometimes in falsetto), it was small wonder that many did a double-take when Sea Change was released.

It seemed the work an entirely different artist. Lead track The Golden Age opens with a lightly strummed acoustic guitar, eerily similar to the beginning of Wild Horses by The Rolling StonesAs we have seen, Beck is an expert mimic, so this may or may not have been intentional. The song that follows is profoundly sad; there’s no attempt to hide behind clever word-play or sound collages. His backing band plays very subtly and loose, the only production gimmick being a space-echo effect manipulated in the background, and subtle slide guitar. This is nakedly personal stuff, demonstrating Beck‘s intimate familiarity with this musical style.

The next track Paper Tiger is also downbeat, with a low-key, intimately sung vocal. The drums are very lightly, but tightly played – in fact this is definitely a break-beat, but played by a live musician rather than a sampler. It is then that we hear something that was entirely new to Beck’s music; real symphonic flourishes arranged by his father, David Campbell (who has a long list of credentials all of his own). In fact, Beck experiments a lot with orchestral instrumentation on Sea Change, adding a great deal of drama and pathos to the songs. Beck had never done something this ambitious before, and it added even more weight to his status as a serious artist, who had the potential to be around for decades.

In fact there are moments on Sea Change where Beck sounds like a confessional ‘singer-songwriter’ in the traditional sense. Songs like Lost Cause could easily have been written and played by Townes Van Zandt, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, or Nick Drake (Round The Bend being reminiscent of Drake’s River Man). These were bona-fide country-tinged folk songs, albeit with more modern production techniques and arrangements, and Beck was not simply approaching this as yet another example of his genre-hopping, he was completely immersed in this stuff.  The nerdy, Loser tag was gone forever. Beck, of course, chose to follow this album with the aforementioned Guero – perhaps he needed a kind of post-modern holiday after revealing so much of himself.

His most recent album of 2014, Morning Phase, adopts a similar style to Sea Change and even used some of the same musicians. In fact, it went onto receive numerous accolades and has been widely regarded as Beck at his absolute best. It’s clear this is the kind of Beck that rock critics prefer, but if we’ve learned anything about the man his next album will be completely different.

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The re-release of Odelay, Guero, and Sea Change – on vinyl, no less – will give us all the opportunity to re-examine some of Beck’s back catalogue again.

An artist with so many sides to their career seems very unusual now. Would an artist be allowed to genre-hop in such a way now?  Would he or she be given such time and investment by the music industry of today? It is open to debate but what does seem apparent is that artists like Beck have always been the anomaly.

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