Artistic experiments seem to either be huge successes or huge failures. JS Bach’s revolutionary counterpoints weren’t fully appreciated until long after he was dead. Van Gogh was never alive and celebrated simultaneously. Beck Hansen, better known by his stage name Beck, is one experimental artist that found humongous success, as well as having been one of the most innovative musicians of his generation. His creative masterpiece “Odelay” celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Beck first found fame in 1993 with the single “Loser.” The song features slide guitar and a repeating sitar line, overlaid with Beck’s half-rapped angsty lyrics. It was an unexpected hit which rocketed him to success. Soon after, he recorded “Mellow Gold,” his first studio album. “Mellow Gold” developed Beck’s sampling techniques and distinctive lyrical wit. “Odelay” followed “Mellow Gold,” and further pushed the artist into the limelight. His next studio album, “Mutations,” was recorded in two weeks, and featured little doctoring, in sharp contrast to “Odelay”’s cut-and-pasted sounds. “Midnite Vultures,” his next attempt, was less commercially successful, but still received a Grammy nomination for Best Album.
“Sea Change,” released in 2002, marked a transition, and a radical departure from the grungy, heavily sampled sounds of “Odelay” and “Mellow Gold.” The album is dark, simply lyrical and deals with themes of heartbreak and emotion. His next three albums — “Guero,” “The Information” and “Modern Guilt” — show further development of style. “Guar” and “The Information” are original and vibrant, but still showcase Beck’s repressed vocal style and easy lyricism. “Modern Guilt” is more subtly made, and reveals a newer, quieter sound. “Morning Phase,” Beck’s most recent album, trends towards the spirit of “Sea Change.” It is soft, introspective and delicately styled. Lyrically, the album ranges through both the joyous and the tragic, but is never depressing.
“Odelay” is unique, to say the least — it utilizes many genres, and you cannot listen once and hope to hear every nuance. The tracks never have a clear or simple melody. They are sonic experiments, formed of interweaving tapestries of sound, which combine to form strangely compelling works. “Hotwax” is driven by a funky bass line and an old-school rap feel and features heavy use of radio static-esque guitar work. “Lord Only Knows” is grungy electronic music reminiscent of Nirvana, “The New Pollution” features a sleazy saxophone line, “Jack-Ass” sounds like a bizarre folk tune and “Derelict” is driven by a Middle Eastern drum line and sitar-like melody. Beck switches seamlessly from rapping to sounding like a folk artist to singing with heavily repressed vocals. All the while, he is helped along by the samples working behind him — everything from saxes and grungy static to organs, bells and steel guitars.
From its sampled opening riff, “Odelay” makes itself a presence to be reckoned with. It runs the full range of Beck’s power, from ska-rap to bluesy folk. It is, at times, a strange mixture. However, the album holds up when listened to as a cohesive whole. From the grungy openings, it descends to scratchy folk, and then up to swinging electro-jazz. It is an auditory puzzle, a strange and compelling piece of art that has not declined with age.
“Odelay” is still fascinating 20 years later — in all that time, there has been no work that has been so violently experimental and still so commercially successful. The album is a testament to the power of innovation and creative experiments. Beck has evolved significantly since 1996 — he is no longer the King of Slackers, as the media dubbed him. For all the change, though, he is still a unique and stylish artist with a sound to match.