I am looking at the only accurate prediction of my life. I am holding the deluxe edition of Odelay in my hands and realizing that in all the years I have been listening to, performing, or writing about music, these two discs are just the latest result of that calculation. Lightning may have struck early — I was still in high school — but in my defense it was a pretty good call: Beck’s second major-label album, Odelay (1996), would be massive.
Granted, "massive" did not include certification of Beck as a cultural icon, nor did it mean that the album would have an immense impact on popular music. But I had a vague sense of how much people would like this album based on a simple formula: Beck + Dust Brothers = Awesome.
I remember arriving at that formula in two steps. The first was that I enjoyed Beck’s major-label debut, Mellow Gold (1994), for its funny lyrics and catchy melodies, but aside from "Beercan" I hated its production. In spite of Beck’s entertaining pseudo-rapping, the juvenile molasses fart of "Soul Suckin’ Jerk" epitomized the impenetrable weirdness of that record. I suppose I hadn’t done enough drugs and/or my stodgy streak started early, but I just figured he should call Primo if he really wanted to rhyme.
Thankfully, the Dust Brothers signed on to produce Beck’s follow-up, because, in sum, I hearted the Dust Brothers. John King and Mike Simpson had an estimable reputation from producing jawns that every kid loved, like Young MC’s "Bust a Move" and Tone-Loc’s Loc’ed After Dark LP. And, of course, they produced one of my then-favorite albums, the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. Imagining Beck’s tripped-out rhymes over the Brothers’ trippier samples and thick breaks was, in retrospect, all the kicks this hormonal teen needed.
I find this memory telling because it illustrates how Odelay both met and veered from expectations. On one hand, Odelay was predictably great because it simply suited tastes by combining two popular things. But that pairing turned out to be far more nuanced and formed a pop-music blueprint. Face it: Mellow Gold was promising, but everyone loved Odelay. Everyone. Whether you were Matt, the only high schooler I knew who was bumping the Residents, or Oscar, who had grown up on a steady diet of hip-hop videos courtesy of the Box, or Anna, the jazzbo with access to her parents’ library of ’60s rock. And none of them (in fact, no one I knew) really expected to like the album as much as they did. But, without rehashing too many of the existing observations and praises, Odelay did what the best contemporary music of any era should do: synthesize the past into something funky and fresh.
Odelay has never gone out of print, nor is it old enough to merit an aural body scrub, but the album deserves a second opinion because of its place in today’s musicscape. Built on layers of sound (each with its own cultural baggage), tracks like "New Pollution" and "Devil’s Haircut" made the meeting grounds for music across time and place seem so accessible and easy. Like a better-blended Check Your Head, Odelay proved more fluid and flexible in accommodating meaning. The fifty-plus years separating Guthrie and Mascis were collapsed in the fifty minutes between "Minus" and "Ramshackle." Certainly, coming from that familiar voice of authority — a blond, white dude — the message became that much easier to digest. But Beck deserves credit for paving the way to today’s fixation on constructed culture.
That said, the deluxe edition is ultimately a fan’s or a critic’s artifact rather than a comprehensive assessment of the album and its reflection of today’s fixation on constructed culture (Paris wading through a virtual Caribbean tide; us fantasizing about underage Miley’s club fantasy; and the great fiction of High School Musical, über alles). The bonus material collects assorted remixes, B-sides and sundry from the period that mostly demonstrates Beck’s growing access to resources.
The indulgent ten-minute, boutique-y remix of "Where It’s At" by U.N.K.L.E. sits high on this list, alongside a contribution to the absurdly hip A Life Less Ordinary soundtrack "Deadweight." Melancholy tracks like "Feather in Your Cap" and "Brother" and the sugarpop hooks of "Electric Music and the Summer People" and "SA-5" are interesting as parallel-universe pieces, but Beck’s subsequent exploration of all these worlds is old hat now. Even old chum Thurston Moore’s brief reflection piece in the liner notes seems more like insider’s gossip than useful exposition.
Perhaps most telling, then, is Dave Eggers’s irreverent interview with fifteen high school students on their thoughts about the album. Eggers’s "investigative" reporting reveals a generally positive consensus, but even Odelay falls in line with music’s increasingly passive role ("something to study to") and, at worst, sounds like "something a light-rock station would play." Definitely didn’t predict that.