In 1991, Nirvana urged listeners to “come as you are”, manifesting a sentiment that many felt would go on to characterise the grunge movement. Music was never more a chariot for the youth and the alternative than it was in the early 90s, when slackers, deadbeats, weirdos and outcasts all found refuge in ripped denim and raucous Fender Jaguar-hybrids.
Flash forward a few years. The poster boy for grunge, Kurt Cobain, is dead and the Seattle sound outfits who survived him have begun to move in new directions.Just when all hope for the power of the alternative music hero was beginning to wane, a weedy, tongue-in-cheek slacker from Los Angeles was thrust into the limelight.
His name? Beck Hansen, though most preferred to call him by only his first name.
20 years ago Beck’s second studio album Odelay hit the shelves, throwing alternative rock on it’s head and gifting 90’s youth a much-needed ethos.
Beck’s debut single, Loser, with its gritty beats, chirpy sitar comps and ironic lyrics, was enough to make him a novelty amongst listeners when it dropped in 1994. While it was Loser that made Beck a household name, it was his follow-up album, Odelay, that cemented his place in history as a genuine flag-bearer for American alternative music.
In the twenty years since its release, Odelay’s brilliance has never been difficult to understand. The record is a submission by an artist who was (and still is) forever itching to blend as many genres as he could into one cohesive whole. It’s the work of a thrillingly ambitious musical craftsman at the peak of his powers.
On a fundamental level, Beck’s raucous melting pot of different musical styles is evident in his choice of samples. The album is littered with snippets from other tracks, some of which include a saxophone solo from an obscure jazz muso, dialogue from a sex education album and splices from Van Morrison’s first band.
On Odelay, Beck took the idea of sampling into new territory, doing so with ingenuity and tact.
Beck’s diversity in his sampling is perhaps only outdone by his ability to reference a smorgasbord of different genres in his own writing. Lord Only Knows harks back to Beck’s roots making lo-fi folk rock, Where It’s At is grounded in hip-hop., and Sissyneck sounds like it could be included on an old-school R&B mixtape.
Yet for all it’s experimentation with disparate musical styles, the album is refreshingly cohesive in its trajectory. Each song, with its presentation of weird and wonderful new colours, seems to be a fresh twist in the narrative arc of this unlikely musical genius.
The record’s most impressive moments are when genre influences collide, creating a sound that is simultaneously retro and new. The New Pollution is a clear example, as coarse electronica, dance-pop, jazz and garage rock blend to provide one of the album’s most effective tracks.
This collision of the retro and the innovative is apt considering the album’s place within history. Look no further than the record’s title, which is believed to be an anglicisation of a Mexican slang word meaning “listen up”, for proof that the record is a self-conscious call for 90s youth to empower themselves with music.
With his slacker aesthetic and ability to draw on the lo-fi style of the time, Beck proved himself as a more than worthy spokesperson for the bonafide 90s youth. At the same time, he pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved in the alternative rock genre that this generation held so close to their hearts- where grunge asked listeners to come as they were, Beck manifested the mantra in his music.
Any noise, no matter how bizarre or how eclectic, was welcome. As it turned out, he was the breath of fresh air that the American alternative rock scene needed post-grunge, single handedly changing the way we think about the ethos of alternative rock music, and how best to epitomise that in music.
Not only this, but Beck showed us what it truly means to be alternative: going balls to the wall in order to rebel against expectation.