Beck is one of those guys you just have to respect because he’s a pure artist. He’s honest, fearless, and brilliant. He will try anything, any genre-bending idea, nonsense lyrics, whatever is around just to get an interesting sound. You’re never going to be bored listening to Beck.
Odelay is the first Beck album I bought, and I played that cassette tape so much I’m surprised it didn’t get warped! When it came out in 1996 I was really into Oasis, the first band 90s I thought it was okay to get obsessed with. When I heard “Where It’s At” that summer, I was stunned! The video was fascinating and strange and super 90s. Beck was the man.
“Devils Haircut” is the opening track, and it is jumpin’ from the first beat. You don’t get eased it to it—it gets all up on you right away! What an excellent example of random lyrics that mean nothing but sound cryptically poetic. I read somewhere that Beck said that the term devils haircut is a metaphor for the evils of vanity. Whatever the hell it is, it makes a cool song title, and the way he screams it at the end of the song just pours that coolness down my spine!
And then here’s this little white boy rapping and sampling and getting super funky on “Hotwax,”
I mean, do it to it! Reminds me of the Beastie Boys, which makes sense since Beck worked with the Dust Brothers on this record. Completely unselfconscious, pumping out those wild beats and weird samples, keeping your ears open and your toes tapping.
It takes a backwash man to sing a backwash soul
Like a frying pan when the fire’s gone
Driving my pig while the bands taking pictures in the grass
And my radio’s smashed
And I like pianos in the evening sun
Dragging my heals ’til my day is done
Saturday night in the Captain’s clothes
Tender horns blowing when my jewelry froze
For fuck’s sake, who writes like that?
“The New Pollution” is another great song with a lot going on. The video is also fan-fucking-tastic! It’s trippy and kitschy and Beck is just the cutest thing ever! I repeated this song a lot as I drove around in the summer of ’96.
“Novacane” is everything you need and expect from Beck all in one song! There’s hip hop, there’s mellowness, there’s drumming. There’s a quiet part that sounds like a typical 90s festival band breaking it down while vendors charge $10 for a bottle of water, and that’s interrupted by feedback and then futuristic weirdness that somehow just makes sense.
I used to sing the line “two turntables and a microphone” in this operatic voice, not sure why. My best friend at the time just thought it was hilarious. “Where It’s At” was the song that made me fall in love with Beck. It’s got sort of a New Jack thing going on, something I definitely did not consider at the time. I think this is one of the songs that really made me realize that it’s fine to incorporate a lot of different styles into your music, things that you wouldn’t think would work because they’re opposites or from different genres or they’re just obnoxious. I have never been interested only in one type of music, but to hear all this different stuff going on in one song was refreshing and enlightening for me. As a writer it is not as easy to combine genres, but I can certainly take elements of different styles of writing and create something interesting and fun. But I can’t do what Beck does.
There’s a destination a little up the road
From the habitations and the towns we know
A place we saw the lights turn low
The jig-saw jazz and the get-fresh flow
Pulling out jives and jamboree handouts
Two turntables and a microphone
Bottles and cans just clap your hands
Just clap your hands
Where it’s at!
I got two turntables and a microphone
“Minus” starts off pretty grungy and pretty much stays that way except for a bit of sugar sprinkled throughout. I dig it.
And the only thing I can really say about “High 5 (Rock the Catskills)” is that you need to listen to it. Repeatedly. And then more repeatedly. And then your life will never be the same.
I listened to different Beck albums all day before writing this. I had never had a Beck-a-thon before, and even though this wasn’t a full Beck-a-thon it was highly satisfying and helped me remember how much I loved Beck back in the day. Aside from thinking about how many times I played this tape in my car when I was in my early 20s, what I kept going back to was the artistry of this man, how much he has done over the past couple decades, how devoted he is to music and creativity in general. I truly admire him and what he has achieved. His impact on my life when I was much younger is immeasurable. The impact he still has now that I recognize him as the virtuoso he is, well, that is even more valuable to me now as I find myself in such a ridiculously fertile creative state of mind.
What Beck represents to me is an artist who doesn’t change like a chameleon to suit his surroundings; I always hate when people use that analogy for artists like David Bowie or Madonna, because changing in the ways these people have is not a defense mechanism or an attempt to fit in. Beck is always going to be Beck, and he’ll always be an innovator. Artists evolve as all humans evolve. We don’t change our essence because our appearance may change. When musicians are criticized because their new album doesn’t sound the same as their old ones, I find that ridiculous. Yes, we all have favorite records for one reason or another, but shit, why do they have to keep writing the same songs over and over? As fans we may never tire of certain recordings, but it’s pretty selfish to expect the artists to not move on to their next interest, the next thing that challenges them.
Beck is not afraid to try new things, old things, weird things, cheesy things. That’s what makes him good at what he does. I think that the essence of being a creative person is to not be afraid of anything. The great John Cleese said in a wonderful speech on creativity that “Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.” I can definitely feel that. But Beck doesn’t.
Don’t be afraid of anything. Your art should be for your pleasure. Always.