#1909 – Beck – Odelay
(CD, 1996) (Discogs tracklisting)
People of my age will have become familiar with the standard cycle of retro-ism: the music of ten years ago seems stale, the music of twenty years ago feels cool, the music of thirty or more years ago has become classic. In particular, the “two decades old = cool” aesthetic has long made itself apparent in the pop music of two decades later. Thus there were Fifties influences running through Seventies pop, from T. Rex to Darts. There were Sixties influences running through Eighties pop, from the mod revival to Marc Almond & Gene Pitney. There were Seventies influences running through Nineties pop, from Erasure’s ABBA EP to French filter house. And there were Eighties influences running through Noughties pop, from electroclash to La Roux.
But here’s the thing: I’m not seeing a repetition of this cycle in the current decade. Sure, there’s dash of Eurodance here and a sprinkling of shoegaze there, but the whole notion of Nineties Cool hasn’t really taken root. (Or maybe I’m just getting old and out of touch. But I think not, eh readers?)
All of which is by way of a long preamble (yep, stalling for time again!) to Odelay: a record from exactly twenty years ago, which still feels as stale to me now as it would have done in 2006. At the time, its magpie approach to genre-plundering, while not exactly new (hello Coldcut!), did still sound ground-breaking. By playfully splicing previously disconnected styles of music together – from hip hop to garage rock via blues, soul, country, grunge and lounge – he created something that sounded absolutely like Now, just as Prince did ten years before with yesterday’s “Kiss”. But that was then, and this is now, and Beck’s Now still feels stuck in Then. Are you still following this?
So I listen to Odelay, and I catch myself thinking: this is what a Silicon Valley startup millionaire would play in the car, to remind himself of when he first felt “edgy”. And I think that’s because the passing of time has somehow neutered the record’s original boldness. Sure, this often happens, but it has happened to Beck in a more specific way – because after two intervening decades in which tribal genre barriers have collapsed, we now live in a world where anything can be spliced (or at least playlisted) with anything, quite free of friction. This has robbed Odelay of its capacity to startle. And once that’s gone, what do we have left? A whimsical collection of mildly surreal ditties about nothing much, that’s what.
To be fair to Beck, he addressed this lack-of-substance problem in subsequent releases, accruing the sort of songwriting gravitas that eventually led him to Morning Phase, 2014’s critically acclaimed comeback. Morning Phase wasn’t for me, though – and to be fair to Odelay, there are still plenty of pleasurable moments along the way: a deftly dropped sample, a cute tune, a groove that gels.
Perhaps it needs longer to hibernate. Perhaps “Odelay-esque” is still a journalistic cliché waiting to happen. Perhaps.