By Brian Ives
Beck always seems like he’s out of place. But twenty year ago this month, when he released his second major label album, Odelay, his awkwardness was, in a weird way, right on time.
Let’s rewind a bit to a few years before Odelay: one of his first tv appearances was when we saw him interviewed by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth on MTV’s 120 Minutes. It was a bit of a train wreck: he responded to questions by playing weird recordings, or by throwing his shoe, he just didn’t seem to belong there.
One of his more recent TV appearnces was at the 2015 GRAMMYs, where he won Album of the Year. It was surprising that he was even nominated alongside such huge pop acts as Beyonce and Pharrell. Even the biggest Beck fans — and Beck himself — seemed surprised by the win. In a world of artists practically begging for sales, endorsement and impressions, Beck seemed like an anomaly. (Since then, he appeared on The Late, Late Show with James Corden in a “special” episode that was shot at a random guy’s house; in that instance, he was literally out of place.)
And now, he’s a bit out of place again: Beck’s latest single, “Wow,” is currently getting airplay on U.S. radio (including Radio.com affiliate KROQ); what the hell is this 40-something year old weirdo doing, getting played alongside Twenty One Pilots, the Lumineers, the 1975 and Kaleo?
“Wow” is a party jam, sort of. Imagine that some poor guy living alone in a junkyard in the middle of nowhere finds a transistor radio and a cheap sampler. And imagine that guy heard a few Drake jams and decided to make one of his own. That’s a bit what “Wow” sounds like. Crazily enough, it works. But of course it does: it’s Beck. He always seems to be able to cobble together broken pieces and spare parts, and somehow create great records that have, somewhat improbably, withstood the test of time.
Beck appeared on the scene in the ’90s with not just one, but two singles that we may politely refer to as “novelties.” First, there was 1993’s “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack.” During that song, he yells, “Fake it ’til you make it!” And he kind of did.
More famously, in ’94, he unleashed “Loser.” A post-grunge so-called “slacker” anthem, it seemed destined to toss Beck in the the “one-hit wonder” section of the used-CD bins. For some reason, the other songs on his major label debut, Mellow Gold, just didn’t hit. The lovely “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” predicted the direction he’d go in on his “sad Beck” albums (like 2002’s Sea Change and 2014’s GRAMMY-winning Morning Phase), and the funky “Beercan” had shades of Odelay. But after those songs fizzled on the charts, Beck was looking like a unflashy flash in the pan.
Not that he seemed sweat it too much: he followed Mellow Gold up with two left-field indie albums: the folky One Foot in the Grave and the bizarre Stereopathic Soulmanure (which, actually, was released before Mellow Gold but got more attention afterwards). Those might have endeared him to the hippest indie fans, but it did nothing for his profile as a major artist. In 1995, he went on the Lollapalooza tour, but during his performances he seemed disinterested; it’s unlikely that he won many people over that summer.
And then, a few months later, this happened:
“Where It’s At” seemed to be what everyone – Beck’s fans, radio, MTV – was waiting for. A fun, funky hit that was smart but not inaccessible to the masses, easily digestible but not too pandering. Beck had teamed up with the Dust Brothers for the album; they were the guys who worked on the Beastie Boys’ classic 1989 album, Paul’s Boutique, which elevated the Beasties from novelty group to a new level of respectability. Of course, in their case, it also resulted in going from multi-platium success to radically lowered sales. It was clear from “Where It’s At” that the partnership with the Dust Brothers worked. And as it turned out, sales were not going to dip; quite the opposite, in fact. Mellow Gold went platinum; Odelay sold twice as well.