Of the artists that emerged immediately following Nirvana’s breakthrough in the early ‘90s, none were more adequately labeled than Beck, whose music was easily the best example of “alternativeness.” Whether amassing all of his musical facets into a single work (Odelay, Midnite Vultures) or distilling them into so-called “departures” (Mutations, Sea Change), Beck’s irreverence has always been unmistakable. 1996’s Odelay found Beck collecting the grooves of generations past and reshaping them into a postmodern tapestry, merging countless samples and styles into one cohesive whole. The resolute confidence with which he accomplishes his sonic experiment becomes all the more important when considering the album’s cultural implications: Odelay isn’t just the product of one artist, it’s a defining statement of an entire generation in the throes of finding its own voice.
For an album with such a dense sonic clutter, Odelay‘s most surprising feature is its relative coherency. Matching themes to their seemingly appropriate genres (or anti-genres)—pop, jazz, folk, hip-hop, country, psychedelic, experimental, and noise rock—each track has its roots, and its flourishes: “Devil’s Haircut” is rooted in blues, “Lord Only Knows” in country and “Jack-Ass” in folk, but each song throws its respective classification on its head, layering the conventions with foreign instruments, beats, and hooks. “Hotwax” starts off as a banjo-laden country tune but then disintegrates into a breakbeat rap song, no doubt becoming inspiration for a legion of white, pseudo-hip-hop bands like Citizen King, who were likely influenced by the artist’s Caucasian dopeness.
Odelay is very much a revolt of principle, and its songs’ messages are never clearer than in the melodies themselves. Beck’s effusive genre-bending—a blues song with a house beat or a rap song with a funk hook, for example—asks us to look past our conventional views of what something should or shouldn’t sound like. Producers The Dust Brothers, famous for their work on the Beastie Boys’ groundbreaking Paul’s Boutique, emphasize the artist’s method-of-madness style with a production that rounds off tracks with background tambourines, maracas, and synthesizers, lending the album much of its bizarre, oddly gratifying texture. It feels like dance-pop, but sounds like just about everything else.
Where 2002’s Sea Change expressed a willingness to reveal the soul, Odelay often plays like a funky meditation piece, a cavalier escape from the everyday world. (Even the album’s title is a seemingly meaningless slang response to the question, “What’s up?”) Odelay‘s highlights also tend to be its funniest songs: “Devil’s Haircut” describes a demented hell while “The New Pollution” parodies an age-old caricature of corrupt women (“She can talk to the mangling strangers/She can sleep in a fiery barn/Throwing troubles to the dying embers”). Preciseness is the name of the game here, and Beck’s biting humor is dead-on.
Just as mainstream success was diluting alternative music, Beck waltzed onto the scene with more than just a few tricks up his sleeve. In the same way that the B-52’s responded to the exaggeration of late-‘70s rock, Beck’s Odelay can be seen as the artist’s own cheeky response to other Gen X alternative acts. That it completely ignored the angst-driven nihilistic trends of the grunge bands that helped shaped a generation of music was a dismissal in itself, and one so popular that it sparked an entirely new thought in music. Indeed, channeling the independent exuberance of alternative’s New Wave roots, Odelay was just as much a swan song for alternative’s passing era as it was the ushering in of a new generation of pop music that was ever so left-of-center.