In 1990, the city of Los Angeles had a problem. The Watts Towers, the glorious and sky-scraping DIY art project made from found parts and assembled junk like glass bottles, buttons, mirrors, and seashells, were not going away. They had been built by Italian immigrant Sabato ‘Simon’ Rodia, working completely on his own, over the course of roughly 30 years. Every time the authorities attempted to remove or deconstruct the towers, they found that the spires were too sturdy, too well constructed to be toppled or even moved a single inch. The city had only one solution: designate the towers a National Historic Landmark and preserve them.
A year later, roughly 20 miles away, a former homeless coffeehouse singer turned flukey stoner alt-rock king would build his own towering monolith of found parts and assembled junk, along with two hip hop producers who called themselves The Dust Brothers and no expectations. The result was Odelay, the weird and wonderful fifth studio album from American musician Beck, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary today.
Bursting to life with the scuzzy punk-funk of ‘Devil’s Haircut’, Beck lays out the modus operandi that he’ll be working with, both for the next 50 minutes and largely for the next two decades: surreal, non-sequitur lyrics, breakbeat drums, bizarre and brain-melting guitar riffing, and an amalgam of samples that chops and twists up so many different sounds that it creates its own alternate universe of popular music.
Those samples are the hallmarks of what makes Odelay so unique. Like another Dust Brothers sampledelia masterpiece, The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, it’s often said that an album like Odelay can’t be made anymore. There are just too many copyright laws guarded by too many greedy record companies holding desperately to the last strands of money from the old music industry to freely mix and mash all the different sounds that Beck and the Dust Brothers arranged into their own endearing stew.
What remains startlingly impressive, outside of the realm of samples, is Beck’s ease with genre-blending. ‘Hotwax’ is country fried hick hop at its most indelible years before it even became a noteworthy genre, while ‘The New Pollution’ gets equal inspiration from elevator music as it does from James Brown, Cocktail Jazz, or William Burroughs. If you want aggressive punk rock, check out ‘Minus’; if you want an early preview of Beck’s second life as a folky acoustic crooner, check out ‘Ramshackle’; if you want Indian-infused psychedelia, check out ‘Derelict’. Just don’t get too comfortable: songs are liable to change at the drop of a hat, a signature of The Dust Brothers always keeping listeners on their toes.
Perhaps because their familiarity makes them inherently more predictable, the hits on Odelay don’t quite inspire the same amazement as the deep cuts upon reexamination. That’s not to say that ‘Where It’s At’ or ‘Devil’s Haircut’ aren’t still absolute bangers, it’s just that they don’t stand out as much on the 1,000th listen, especially when going up against songs like ‘Novacane’ that play like funky hidden gems.
‘Where It’s At’, for what it’s worth, is still one the most delightful and off-center hit singles of the ’90s. Before Odelay, Beck was still “The Loser Guy”, an ambivalent slacker avatar perfectly suited for Generation X, a persona primed for pigeonholing. What ‘Where It’s At’ did, with all it’s white boy rap charm and good drum breaks, was establish Beck as an artist outside of one-hit wonderland. It was familiar enough to the sensibilities of ‘Loser’ while clearly leaving it in the review mirror. Beck now had the freedom to follow his muse through any detours that he felt were worth exploring, causing Odelay, and all of his subsequent albums, to take on a time capsule quality, illustrating the current thoughts and inclinations of an artist in constant motion.
More than anything else, Odelay seems to have predicted the disposable culture, goofy irreverence, and short attention span of the modern day. “Going back to Houston/Do the hot dog dance/Going back to Houston/To get me some pants” is how ‘Lord Only Knows’ ends. Perhaps it’s giving Beck too much credit. This is a man who has openly admitted to free association and vacuous lyrics that don’t really mean anything, but now that they’re featured in an unimpeachable cornerstone of popular music, you can find endless meaning in throwaway lines like “Rubbish piles fresh and plain/Empty boxes in a pawn shop brain”.
The lasting impression of Odelay is that of a dense listening experience that still leaves enough room for you to impart your own thoughts, a masterstroke of naive art turned high art. It’s hyper-specific and intricately arranged, but also vague and endearingly dilapidated, assembled from various odds and ends but still built to last. “Bottles and cans/Just clap your hands”. Despite its bric-a-brac foundation, it can’t be brought down: it’s too influential, too much fun, and too well constructed to be torn down. It’s a landmark all its own, and one that will likely endear well past its expected expiration date.