The big question that followed the runaway success of Beck Hansen’s major-label debut, Mellow Gold, was: Can this precocious child of bohemian stock survive one-hit novelty status? The refrain of his unlikely avant-folk-rock-hip-hop hit of 1994 (“I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?”) became a mantra for slackers and beer-swilling frat boys alike, but Beck’s ambitions far exceeded the gimmicky appeal of “Loser.” Mellow Gold also took on wasted, blue-collar lives in the warbly, experimental “Truckdrivin’ Neighbors Downstairs” and introduced a new generation of mainstream pop fans to surreal, Dylan-esque tongue twisters.
Odelay, Beck’s second DGC album, is even more consistently engaging than Mellow Gold and more musically sophisticated than the Los Angeles singer’s late-’94 indie-label follow-up, One Foot in the Grave. Co-produced by the Dust Brothers (who were responsible for the Beastie Boys‘ psychedelic hip-hop epic, Paul’s Boutique), Odelay takes Beck’s kitchen-sink approach to new extremes while also managing to remain a seamless whole; the songs flow together with intelligence and grace.
Like the Beasties, Beck is among the few white-boy hip-hop wanna-be’s with a clue. He truly understands the tenuous thread that connects funk to punk, hip-hop to art rock, and jazz to country blues, and is able to cram his encyclopedic knowledge of 20th-century musical styles into three- and four-minute nuggets of pure pop. But as “Loser” made clear, Beck’s avant-garde, mix-and-mingle approach is not just an intellectual exercise. When he chants, “I got two turntables and a microphone,” over a funky keyboard line and a midtempo drum track on Odelay’s “Where It’s At,” he does so with such giddy enthusiasm you can practically see him rifling through his electro-funk collection for the perfect Afrika Bambaataa groove. It’s nothing short of the sort of passionate fandom that emanates from Keith Richards’ country- and blues-inspired guitar licks on Exile on Main St. or from Bob Dylan’s Jack Kerouac-by-way-of-Woody Guthrie crooning on Highway 61 Revisited.
And Beck’s ebullience is infectious. As on Mellow Gold, he mixes addictive pop tunes like “Devil’s Haircut” and the fuzz-box country rock of “Lord Only Knows” with more out-there fare such as the dub-based drone of “Readymade” or the space-age raga of “Derelict.” For the album’s gentle, melancholy closer, “Ramshackle,” Beck even recruited the legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden (Ornette Coleman, Quartet West) to provide a smooth, rubbery bottom end. In between those songs lie more rap-based tracks: Along with “Where It’s At” are the distorted, harmonica-drenched “Hotwax” and “Novacane,” and the crunching “High 5 (Rock the Catskills),” which culls elements from all over the map, including screeching feedback, funk rhythms, chirping techno-ambient effects and even a snippet of classical strings.
The weird music serves as a surrealistic pillar that supports Beck’s even weirder lyrics. “I got a devil’s haircut in my mind,” he sings in “Devil’s Haircut,” and over a “Taxman” bass line in the loungy “New Pollution,” he announces, “She’s alone in the new pollution.” So much for profound, clearly stated messages. But that’s OK; hippie English teachers the world over are still trying to figure out “Desolation Row.” Besides, as the absurdist Captain Beefheart long ago established, it’s not what you say in the arena of Seussian pop, it’s how brilliant it sounds when you say it.
Only in the post-hip-hop ’90s could a wry, childlike pop star with a crooked smile and a proclivity for cheesy ’70s T-shirts combine so much so seamlessly. But while Beck may appear to be flip in his no-holds-barred approach to music, no other contemporary artist — except maybe the Beastie Boys — comes close to his ambitious sense of adventure. A novelty act? Not by a long shot. Could the future of rock & roll be a snot-nosed slacker with a bad haircut, an absurdly eclectic record collection, two turntables and a microphone?
This story is from the June 13th, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.