Few artists have had as eclectic a career as the elusive Beck – his styles stretch from the lush funk-pop of Midnite Vultures to the dreamy folk of 2014’s Morning Phase. But in 1996, Beck’s Odelay showcased the heights of his experimentation. Like no else has, Beck flawlessly fused hip hop and country, uniting it with his typical tinges of neo-psychedelia and lo-fi into one of music’s most unique and innovative releases.
Odelay is timeless. Although the term timeless is one that’s thrown around a lot, Odelay is truly timeless. Beck’s pastiche of sounds new and old into one project is what provides Odelay with its sense of individuality, its sense of disorientating identity. Beck throws everything at the wall, and somehow everything sticks. With the Dust Brothers on hand as resident production duo, Odelay was transformed from sparse acoustic tracks (like the melancholy closer Ramshackle) into a project that incorporated heavier elements of hip hop and sample based production with Beck’s signature style.
In many ways, Odelay is a scrapbook, a total collage album. Tracks like Where It’s At are full of vocal samples from sex education films and old electro records that fill up the free space in the funk, while other songs such as Hotwax or High 5 (Rock The Catskills) find themselves appropriating swathes of musical samples for Beck’s folk-hop fusion. No sample is out of bounds for Beck – the end result on Odelay is an unrecognizable transformation into new tracks that seem indebted to no particular era, but all of them.
Odelay’s eclecticism extends to its musicality too. Beck’s songwriting on this project shines, delivering a series of thirteen consistently engaging and consistently innovative tracks. From start to finish, Odelay encompasses shifts in style and genre that a single artist might experience in a lifetime. Within the scope of just the first five tracks, Beck explores a myriad of musical ideas; the lo-fi garage rock of Devils Haircut, the country rap of Hotwax, the catchy alt-country of Lord Only Knows, groovy psychedelic pop on The New Pollution, and the lethargic neo-psychedelic percussion of Derelict. None of these songs falter, all flawless additions to a classic album.
Beck’s lyricism is as integral to Odelay as the music – his stream of consciousness lazy raps are never obnoxious, but instead, beautiful. Atop the earworm organ riffs of Where It’s At, Beck drops absurdist bars that put full time rappers to shame (Members only hyponotizers / Move through the room like ambulance drivers / Shine your shoes with your microphone blues / Hirsute with your parachute fruits), while the psych-pop anthem The New Pollution is just as surreal (She’s got cigarette on each arm / She’s got the lily-white cavity crazes). Even on (slightly) more conventional tracks like Lord Only Knows or Ramshackle, Beck’s lyrics sound like phrases from a fever dream.
Odelay’s instrumental performances are amazing as well – whether a track is rooted in groovy psychedelia homages or a sense of melancholia, every song is moving. Novacane and Minus see Beck embracing his heavy side, exploring noise and garage rock amidst a lo-fi haze of electronica improvisation, while later on the album, he fuses country and neo-psychedelia on Sissyneck and Jack-Ass. On Odelay, Beck abandons every aspect of mainstream music and conventional songwriting. Every musical norm is broken down, every typical concept subverted and reappropriated.
In place of conventionality, Beck instead redefines music in the context of his hazy neo-psychedelic country-hop. High 5 (Rock The Catskills) could be the usual alternative dance song, but instead Beck breaks down every moment where the audience expects something and does the opposite – there are interpolations of Schubert compositions and Latin jazz, and aspects of electronica and abrasive noise rock in place of a breakdown. It should be challenging, and to an extent it is, but somehow Beck makes it accessible with his strong grasp on pop sensibilities. Beck sounds far removed from the conventions of mainstream music, but it’s all a facade – he knows exactly what he’s doing.
Looking over twenty years back, Beck’s Odelay is still as both timeless and perfect as it was in 1996. Even today, nobody has come close to successfully fusing hip hop and country with the same expertise as Beck, let alone exploring elements of neo-psychedelia and lo-fi music. Few albums are as deserving of the classic title as Odelay.