Mellow Gold flashed across 1994’s pop-music horizon as if out of nowhere, its beat-wise folk songs seemingly springing from Beck’s drug-addled consciousness like Athena from the head of Zeus. With one foot in cyberspace and the other in the garage, Beck came on like a cut-and-paste trickster, stirring hip-hop, country blues, and drunk-on-words revelry into a mix that was fresh and audacious enough to justify his reputation as a slacker wunderkind. But that was before lackluster indie-label folk releases and an underwhelming showing at Lollapalooza ’95 cast doubt on his creative focus, leaving fans to ponder which of his two personasindie experimentalist or pop geniuswould manifest itself next.
Odelay, Beck’s eagerly anticipated follow-up for DGC, marks his triumphant return to form. The record’s got hooks and beats galore; like Sly & the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits, it’s the perfect summer groove albumthat is, until you sample Beck’s lyrics, which betray a decidedly stormier outlook. “Something’s wrong because my mind is fading/And everywhere I look there’s a dead end waiting/Temperature’s droppin’ at the rotten oasis/Stealin’ kisses from the lepers’ faces,” he raps on “Devils Haircut.” “Derelict,” a dirge-like chant haunted by a Tricky-inspired rhythm track, is equally ominous: “I dropped my anchor in the dead of night/Packed my suitcase and threw it away/Fell asleep in the funeral fire/Gave my clothes to the policeman.” Not exactly a day at the beach, these are rhymes made for a world out of joint.
Getting inside Beck’s heador, as he puts it, “stealin’ pesos outta [his] brain”is doubtlessly futile; and yet, in a brilliantly cracked way, Odelay finds him giving voice to a zeitgeist for the end of the century. The zeitgeist? Hardly. Cultural fragmentation in the ’90s doesn’t permit Beckmuch less anyone elseeven the illusion of generational consensus that Bob Dylan, Sly Stone, and others once enjoyed. Still, with devastatingly offhand lines like “loose ends tying a noose in the back of my mind,” Beck captures the prevailing dis-easethe sense of randomness and relative meaninglessthat many people are feeling as the year 2000 approaches.
Yet for all its darkness and foreboding, Odelaymuch like Prince’s 1999is one hell of a party album. At its heart lies the single “Where It’s At,” an irrepressible ode to juking that rewrites Amos Milburn’s “Chicken Shack Boogie” for the hip-hop era. “There’s a destination a little up the road/From the habitations and the towns we know/A place we saw the lights turned low/The jigsaw jazz and the get-fresh flow,” Beck announces over an ultra-cool soul-jazz groove. “Where It’s At” has everythinghumor, offbeat samples, an unforgettable tag line. Not since “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” has any song celebrated the transformative power of “two turntables and a microphone” with such gusto and abandon.
Odelay is Beck reinventing himself as a human jukebox; though only 26 years old, he has digested a half-century’s worth of pop musiceverything from down-home blues and post-punk noise to cheesy disco and Blue Note horns. This musical ecumenism notwithstanding, a late ’60s-early ’70s vibe can be heard throughout Beck’s latest, whether he’s evoking the faux-country stylings of Muswell Hillbillies-era Kinks or Brinsley Schwarz (“Lord Only Knows,” “Sissyneck”), the Beatles’ forays into Eastern Music (“The New Pollution”), the space-metal of early Funkadelic (“Novacane”), or the fat, fuzzy tones of Keith Richards’ guitar. In the end, though, what’s so amazing about Odelay is how, instead of sounding like some reified version of the rock-crit canon, Beck gives everything on the record his indelible stamp.
Much of this can be attributed to his gifts as an improviser, which, as Beck tells us, are considerable. “All my days I got the grizzly words/Hijacked flavors that I’m flippin’ like birds,” he boasts of his microphone skills. And yet he knows he’s not in the same league as MCs like Kool Moe Dee and Rakim. In fact, as a writer and performer, Beck has no doubt been influenced by the comedic genius of Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams as much as he has by any rapper. Maybe that’s why he samples Them covering James Brown instead of sampling the Godfather himself. Like Van Morrisonwho, as a Belfast street-tough, fronted ThemBeck is a white artist who has internalized most forms of popular black music on the way to finding his own unique voice.
Not surprisingly perhaps, people are comparing Odelay to Paul’s Boutique, the Beastie Boys’ astonishing second album. Similarities between the two records definitely exist: Both wed hip-hop and hardcore punk sensibilities and share crazy-quilt samplers the Dust Brothers as coproducers. And “High 5 (Rock the Catskills),” a riotous send-up in which Beck likens Lollapalooza to the schmoozy Catskills nightclub scene, is a Beasties tribute if ever there was one.
Even so, the music on Odelay never feels as dense as that on Paul’s Boutique. It’s also more song-oriented, an emphasis that, when coupled with Beck’s unconscious mastery over words, brings to mind yet another Jewish iconoclast, Bob Dylan. Abstract passages from Odelay like “Don’t be confused when the fuse is up and you’re taking a leak in your brother’s cup” and “Throw your meal ticket out the window, put your skeletons in jail” almost certainly had no rock ’n’ roll antecedent before Dylan. “Minus” owes plenty musically to Sonic Youth, but, with Beck stacking pregnantly surreal line upon pregnantly surreal line, it ultimately sounds like nothing so much as a “Subterranean Homesick Blues” for the ’90s.
Maybe because Beck has been burned for not living up to expectations that he become the Nevermind-generation’s answer to Bob Dylan, Odelay finds him acknowledging his debt to Dylan more indirectly. In fact, when on “Jack-Ass” he samples “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” he doesn’t even use Dylan’s original, but a 1966 cover of the song by Them (who show up several times on Odelay). Elsewhere, Beck brings it all back home with the line, “It takes a backwash man to sing a backwash song,” a knowing reference to “Worried Man Blues,” the Depression-era lament that Dylan idol Woody Guthrie lifted from the Carter Family. In this context, it’s as resonant for the 21st century as it was 50 or 60 years ago. If nothing else, multilayered connections like this one prove that, no matter how sui generis Beck’s genius appears, his musical and moral vision is rooted in a deep and abiding grasp of cultural history. Visionary Beck
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