By the time Odelay came out in 1996, Beck Hansen had already established himself as a harbinger of bizarre but undeniably catchy alternative rock.
His most notable popular success up to that point had been the single “Loser,” which reached number ten on the Billboard chart in 1994. That was three years before the release of Odelay, arguably his most successful album, both critically and popularly.
Before there was Odelay, Beck had only released one album on a major label. That album was Mellow Gold, put out by DGC Records, the same company that would release Odelay. The album introduced Beck’s penchant for sampling and sound effects, but remained undeniably punk-influenced. His first studio album, Golden Feelings, came out in 1993, followed by two others, Stereopathic Soulmanure and One Foot in the Grave, on independent labels in 1994.
When Beck began recording Odelay, he was working with producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, who had helped him on Mellow Gold. Recovering from the death of his grandfather, Beck’s original tracks for the album were slow numbers, mainly acoustic. Little remains on the album from these sessions, only the closing track “Ramshackle,” which feels like a folk song, with its acoustic guitar, minimalist percussion, and smooth chorus.
After getting a few tracks down, Beck called in the Dust Brothers, who had received attention for producing Paul’s Boutique for the Beastie Boys and the distinctive soundtrack for the film Fight Club.
On Odelay, the change in producers resulted in a much snappier album with a significant amount of sampling. The variety of samples that made their way into the music on Odelay runs the gamut of genres.The constant change in sound texture is one of the album’s most distinctive features. This is highlighted by the second track, “Hotwax.”
It starts off with a blues influenced guitar riff. This riff is quickly covered by a vocal track that has the rhythms and rhymes of rap, but retains the lyricism and cryptic imagery characteristic of Beck. It continues into a melodic pop chorus, and the closing thirty seconds are a tongue-in-cheek exercise in mysticism. “I am the enchanting wizard of rhythm,” Beck sings, closing the track.
And that’s just the second song. Other tracks ascribe almost completely to one style of music. “Novacane,” for example, consistently features the distorted, screaming vocals of metal.
“Sissyneck” boasts overblown country features – an opening whistle that feels like bluegrass, a swinging slide guitar, and a chorus that repeats, “I’ve got a stolen wife / and a rhinestone life / and some good old boys.”
These elements combine to be farcical, almost anti-country. At the same time it is very addicting and listenable. By highlighting certain elements of the music, Beck comments on and adds definition to the styles and genres from which he borrows.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine explains, “each track twists conventions, either in their construction or presentation, giving this [album] a vibrant, electric pulse, surprising in its form and attack.”
For all of its changes in mood, rhythm and sound quality, Odelay never feels unsettled. It is confident in its quirks, and that comes across. Beck won two Grammys for the record in 1997: Best Alternative Music Album and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for “Where It’s At.”
Odelay brought alternative rock music to a weirder, more experimental place without losing those qualities that are essential to fun listening and good music.