Counterbalance No. 57: Beck – ‘Odelay’


Mendelsohn: Klinger, there isn’t much wrong with Beck’s Odelay. But, man, I’d be hard pressed if I had to describe it to someone who had never heard it before. One minute it’s a breakbeat dance party, the next it sounds like golden-era Rolling Stones blues interspersed with what I can only assume is a 14.4K-band modem looking for a viable connection. Punk, pop, and hip-hop rub shoulders from start to finish, and it all sounds like a cohesive whole.

For me, Odelay will always summon images of the mid-’90s but listening to it again, I am really surprised by how well this album has aged. It still sounds fresh. How has it struck your ear bones over the last week?

Klinger: Revisiting Odelay has been like finding a bunch of old shirts that I used to wear 15 years ago. They’re not that far removed from what I wear these days, and I can certainly see why I liked them so much, but at the same time there’s something about them that just places them in my past. I remember them fondly, but they’re not coming back into the rotation.

By and large, I’ve enjoyed reconnecting with Odelay, but it wasn’t the same kind of revelation as I had with the Band or Love. I will say that in spending concentrated amounts of time with this album, I’ve come to develop a theory that this album is a pretty transformative one—for better and for worse. First, the better. At a time when it seemed like music was disappearing up its own grunge-hole, Beck was offering a more inclusive way forward, albeit a way that kept one eye on the past. By throwing everything you described there into the mix—and by giving them all essentially equal heft—Odelay seemed like a full-color explosion at a time when the Alternative Nation was threatening to turn everything into a dull muddy gray. (Good lord, did I not enjoy the 1990s.)

Mendelsohn: No one enjoyed the ’90s—well, I did, but I was young and didn’t know any better. To this day, I still pull out Odelay from time to time. It’s one of the few albums from that era that I still enjoy immensely and I can listen to it without any weird feelings of nostalgia. “Where It’s At” and “New Pollution” do it to me a little, but those songs were all over the place for a minute.

You are right about Beck’s ability to rise above his contemporaries. Odelay was one of the few critical and commercial bright spots at a time when the music industry was in the run up to a monumental cash-grab, churning out half-assed copies of whatever might have been remotely popular. The thing about music and the music industry in the 1990s was that is seemed very rooted in the present. The industry was only concerned about how much money they could make at that moment without really looking at what the future would hold—but who can blame them? Most of the artists the industry was championing seemed to be playing it just as fast and loose. No one was paying much attention to what had come before them or what might follow. Beck was one of the few artists that understood that the path to the future always starts in the past.

But I’m curious to hear why you think Beck’s kaleidoscope funhouse-style of music might not have been the best thing for music.

Klinger: One word. The watchword of the ’90s: irony. Beck seemed to be the distillation of all of the undercurrents of irony that had been bubbling up in the decade leading up to Odelay. However sincere he may have actually been, Beck still gave me the sense of, “Hey look, that skinny white kid in the vomit-colored cardigan is pretending he’s Kurtis Blow. I totally get that!” It seems to me that a lot of the elements Beck was incorporating into these songs (samples of Grand Funk Railroad and samba music, references to no-longer-fashionable early ’80s hip-hop) were still the cultural detritus of that time. They hadn’t been lent the legitimacy that is so often the by-product of ironic appreciation. And from there, I can’t help feeling that it’s a short walk to the cheap and easy “irony” of, say, Juno.

Of course, that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the crap out of hearing these references (and I recall being thrilled by the beautifully atmospheric sample of Them’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” on “Jackass”). And on the other hand, the idea of democratizing music, encouraging kids in thrift store regalia to love any kind of music they want, is immensely appealing. So maybe the thing that I thought was less than ideal is actually OK. Or maybe it’s even a net gain for Odelay. I don’t know. I’m feeling that ’90s ennui seeping in again. Mendelsohn, talk me through it.

Mendelsohn: Odelay is a bit like a sapling: it’s sturdy enough and it has quite a bit of bend to it but if you lean on it too hard, it’s going to snap and come flying back to hit you in the face or the groin, whichever is funnier. Just take a minute, step back from the album, and see what kind of tree it has turned into. No, it’s not a stately oak but that really isn’t what Beck was about. Odelay is more like an apple tree, it’s a little twisted and isn’t the tallest tree in the forest but it still bears fruit—sweet, delicious fruit.

I understand where you are coming from, the ’90s were a backward time and no one seems to have been happy except for Beck. But I think if all you see when you listen to Odelay is the skinny white kid in a vomit-colored cardigan, causing the needle of the Iron-O-Meter 6000 to go haywire, then you are completely missing the point. Beck and his producers the Dust Brothers (who must also be given full credit—or blame—for the way this album sounds) were sampling some odd things, tapping into the undercurrents of irony, but there is a real celebration of music on this record. It may have been cultural detritus, but it is evidently the music the Beck loved and he found a way to express that love, even if that meant admitting that he wasn’t cool, which is probably the coolest thing he could have done, thereby making him the coolest dude around.

If you want to be really cynical about it we could just say that Beck was too far ahead of the cool curve. He was pushing the late-’70s, early-’80s references way too early and got punished for it. There’s an accepted re-cool date for everything that runs on a 15- to 20-year schedule. Beck was just a couple years early.

Klinger: Of course, we can’t discount the notion that ’60s punk, ’70s funk and ’80s hippety-hop gained a lot more cred thanks to Beck’s imprimatur. So OK, I’m willing to let the pastiche-work quilt of Odelay wash over me without too much navel gazing and second guessing. And when you’re presented with tunes as groovy as “Hotwax” or as propulsive as “Lord Only Knows”, that’s not hard to do.

And anyway, Beck himself was certainly wise enough to see that irony for its own sake was going to end up a blind alley. It seems to me that’s why, after attempting to single-handedly resurrect 1983 with the Prince-ly Midnite Vultures, he appears to be less interested in doing the Robot and calling it Art. That may not have always worked to his advantage—he’s struck me as only intermittently interesting this decade, but I give him credit for being true to himself.

But I want to come back to this whole hip-hop idea. As someone who’s more versed in this stuff than I am, what impact do you think Beck had on hip-hop’s shift into the mainstream? Obviously he didn’t present himself as a full-on “rapper”, but by using it as a fairly large piece in his overall mosaic, did Beck change the way the music was perceived in the larger culture?

Mendelsohn: No, I don’t think Beck had anything to do with it. Hip-hop was on a collision course with the mainstream long before Beck hit the scene. If Beck had never made this record, we’d still have big name rappers doing guest spots on dime-a-dozen pop diva records (shame on you, Kanye) and hip-hop would still be popping up in odd places. Beck simply showed that the genre could be repurposed to fit just about any role, although I’d hesitate to even call Beck’s vocal style anything close to rapping. He’s got more of a lilting speak-sing that pays a huge debt to punk and rock, and is more akin to scat than it is to the word craft of hip-hop.

But that’s just Beck; he mastered the art of collage and figured out how to blur the lines seamlessly—a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and you get something new. Sure, we can dissect it, identify all the parts, but I’d bet you a dollar that if we tried to put it back together again, we’d each come up with something different, it wouldn’t sound half as good, and there would be a frighteningly large amount of leftover parts.

Klinger: Well, see, that’s what happens when I try to sound like I’m down with the kids—I end up sounding like I think Beck is a rapper. Also I end up saying things like “down with the kids”. Curse my middle-agedness! Well, at least I can enjoy the jigsaw jazz and the get-fresh flow that I find here. Bottom line, then: Is Odelay truly canon-worthy? In the end, I’m saying yes. I think it represents an important shift—mostly for the better—toward legitimizing musical forms that were on the verge of disappearing.

Mendelsohn: Absolutely. Plus, I will never tire of listening to this record. The fun just doesn’t quit—like flashdance ass pants.