I like odd.
Beck is very odd.
Therefore I like Beck.
I’m usually above using syllogism.
Beck was never supposed to be an icon. He was meant to be a quirky one hit wonder, with the slide guitar and bad rap of “Loser” being his legacy, a bright shining moment at the end of the last real musical revolution. His début major label album Mellow Gold was supposed to be forever a relic of a specific era, as fantastic as it is. Then he was supposed to retreat back to the underground from which he sprang, putting out indie records with a mishmash of hiphop folk and nonsensical lyrics.
That was what was supposed to happen. He was not supposed to give Geffen Odelay.
Once again, he produced an album of patchwork of samples, structured like hip hop but sounding like folk rock. Samples came from artists as varied as Them, Schubert, Sly and the Family Stone, and Grand Funk Railroad. He produced an album with three hit singles and a memorable cover (that is a Komondor, a Hungarian livestock guardian breed of dog that I would want if that coat wasn’t such a nightmare to keep up).
How on earth did this guy, the loser from SoCal who was barely a singer and barely has a record to put out when he struck gold with the dripped-in-Fe “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?”- a song that topped the charts a mere three weeks after Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in a Seattle greenhouse- become the defining American artist of a decade?
See, I was not supposed to fall in love with the sixties pop stylings of “New Pollution”, with its quirky video that referenced Lawrence Welk, Kraftwerk, the Stones, the era variety show cheese, and hair metal. The song is a poppy delight, and sweet song from a guy not known for being sweet. It’s a charming song, one of my absolute favourite 90s tracks. It was Beck being Beck, the antithesis of his peers. He wasn’t dour and angry despite his own cynicism. He was the court jester. “Loser” was the ultimate slacker anthem, but it was loaded with so much irony that a generation literally lost perspective on it. Winona Ryder’s character Lelaina was asked to define irony in the movie Reality Bites, and upon failing, screamed “I know it when I see it”. Beck was the master of irony in both lyrics and music. The song that sounds like some discarded Monkees track is ultimately about a girl manipulating her environment. Alone in the new pollution. The closest the Monkees themselves came to matching the art of cynical pop masterpiece was “Randy Scouse Git”, which is a fine song, but nowhere near as fun as “New Pollution”.
He also won me over with the reconstructed blues of “Devil’s Haircut”, a song so ridiculously confusing and fantastic all at once. It makes no sense to me, outside of that great replayed Them guitar bit. Lyics refer to kissing leprous faces, garbage man trees, discount orgies, and “mouthwash jukebox gasoline”. It’s enough to make me bash my head repeatedly against the desk. But since it’s wrapped up in a that kick ass guitar riff and those bright drum fills, I cannot do anything but love it.
Then there is the amazing and amusing “Where It’s At”, with a lyrical hook sample from Mantronix, and organs that are certainly inspired by some obscure seventies track. This song is what happens when the Beastie Boys and Captain Beefheart have drinks with Issac Hayes and Mike Post, get it on, and have some seriously messed up spawn. It is, in the song’s own words, “jigsaw jazz”.
The rest of the album is as excellent as the hits. “Novacane” is a ferocious hip hop/punk/feedback rant. There is the slide guitar and twang of “Hotwax”. There is loneliness pf “Derelict”, the Dylan-via-Them cribbing “Jack-Ass”, the opening scream and subsequent moping of “Lord Only Knows”. But my favourite song “Sissyneck” has that wonderful whistle open and then follows with some funk organ, countrified bass, and one of Beck’s better vocals.
Considering 1996 was the year I started college, and that this record played a significant part in that year by being a great party album in a world that was in between grunge and crap pop, I have to say that this record holds up better than I thought it would. Beck would never be this much fun again- in fact, as much as I love him, he can be absolutely dreary sometimes. In fact, the minor key lament “Ramshackle”, which closes the album, shows the direction he would be taking- the Moog-heavy Mutations would come next, and would be a drastic departure from the more popular and memorable Odelay.