There is nothing quite as damning as mainstream success to someone who hopes to buck popularity. All musicians appreciate the money that comes with album sales, but that doesn't mean they want to be on MTV. Kurt Cobain is the classic example. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" mocked corporate music and became the biggest song of the decade. Cobain didn't kill himself based strictly on unwanted success, but it certainly helped. Beck is a slightly less melodramatic example. His single "Loser," off the 1994 album "Mellow Gold," was one of those last-minute tracks that Beck threw in. It got huge and Beck immediately grew concerned that the public would consider him a one-note wonder. Therefore the follow-up "Odelay" had to be the biggest jumble of variety EVER CREATED (or something).
Considering this was 1995, it's tough to beat the Dust Brothers for helping with production (DJ Shadow and Girl Talk weren't things yet). If you recall, this is the same duo that helped the Beastie Boys to craft "Paul's Boutique" and advance the art of sampling. The pair would help Beck make his new album a big, glorious mess of styles. Some of the samples are simple, like when Beck balances hip-hop vibes with California beach themes that play into his perceived slacker motif. Few of the drum beats sound sampled, but most of them are. Beck and the Brothers are less clean in many of their other decisions, but by intent.
Consider this album's super-hit "Where It's At." The organ melody and handclap rhythms blend hip-hop and soul, which is natural. Following the first hook (you know the one), it suddenly breaks down into robo-Beck singing over an electric drum set. It makes no sense, but Beck's intentions do. He has a dozen potential singles on "Odelay," but he doesn't want people to get too comfortable with his music. "Sissyneck" pulls the act off more smoothly. The bass and drums remain funky, and electric chirps pop up, but the guitar takes a turn West thanks to playing with a slide. Beck drawls his vocals while discussing urban life, a stroke of irony fans have come to expect.
Speaking of irony, I do have one beef with Beck and his vocal approach. I'm not offended that he comes across as totally apathetic. I'm cool with that. But as mentioned before, much of Beck's music takes after hip-hop, and his vocal delivery often follows suit. Beck knows he's a terrible rapper (producer Carl Stephenson told him so), so he's got to rely on his lyrics. Generally, his lyrics only succeed in that they rhyme. Critics have long gotten around his awkward phrasing by citing its irony. I don't doubt that this is true about Beck's approach. But when every other clunky white rapper tries to flow, (Vanilla Ice, Fred Durst, etc.) it's called crap. Intent is important, but it's not enough for me. Of course, the examples I gave aren't exactly sympathetic. I just didn't want to slobber about Beck's genius like many critics do.
"Odelay" is best if the lyrics are written off anyhow. All those hip-hop/surf rock/electronica elements…this album was meant to be fun. And it is.
INTERESTING FACT: There are a lot of samples on "Odelay," but a few stick out. The Dust Brothers found two samples of the band Them, which was Van Morrison's first group. Both of the samples are from Them covering other artists. One, in "Devil's Haircut" is a sample of James Brown's "Out of Sight." The other is on "Jackass," where Them play Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue."