In the months leading up to Odelay’s release in 1996, Beck remembers a famous record producer inviting him to go for a drive. I’ve heard your album, the producer told him. Don’t release it. Huge mistake. Start over. Make something real—a real album, with real songs.
Beck was crestfallen. His first album, 1994’s Mellow Gold, had made him a cult favorite and critical fascination, but he was still a ways off from solid ground. “I was 24,” he tells Apple Music, on the album’s 25th anniversary. “I had virtually no money, and had just spent about $300,000 making this record. I thought I’d be paying it off working in a minimum-wage job for a decade.”
By now, we know what happened. But you can imagine what the producer was thinking. As much as Odelay reflects the past—the dusty samples, the kitschy callbacks to ’60s pop (“The New Pollution”), ’70s country (“Sissyneck”), and ’80s hip-hop (“Where It’s At”)—it also presages an attention-deficient future where we cobble stories together from fragments and feel our focus constantly shifting from one shiny object to the next. At the time, people didn’t have cell phones, and the biggest bands on the radio were post-grunge artists like Smashing Pumpkins and Silverchair. Within a couple of years, we’d start hearing the pastiche of artists like Gorillaz and Fatboy Slim. But a couple of years can mark an era—Odelay was where we were going, but we weren’t there quite yet.
The execution is experimental, but the source material is folksy and earthbound, the hand-me-downs of distant uncles and yard sales. Beck remembers sifting through samples with the album’s producers, The Dust Brothers, not just as an exercise in finding cool sounds, but in cultural archeology. Or, as he puts it, “let’s take a moment on a forgotten record that nobody has ever heard, that tangentially has nothing to do with the harmonic structure of the song or any of the actual hook or songwriting of the song…and let's make that the centerpiece of a new piece of music.”
You might come for the style (“Devils Haircut”) or the smart-ass humor (“Lord Only Knows”), but at the heart of Odelay is a sense of play and fascination, of wandering wonderstruck through a junkyard of things half-remembered and half-experienced and building your world anew. The album’s cover famously featured the image of an absurd, mop-like dog called the Komondor, leaping over a hurdle—a dog whose puppy, in a simple twist of fate, Beck ended up living up the street from. When he first saw the image, he laughed out loud. But he also felt a pang of kinship. “I feel like I’m trying to achieve the impossible of clearing this hurdle that I’m not even remotely qualified to clear,” he remembers thinking. “I don’t even know what I’m doing.” Maybe not. But he did it.