In the early ’90s, pre-Odelay Beck shifted through genres like a wild-haired Rolodex tossed in a cement mixer. From January to June 1994, Beck released three full-length records: Stereopathetic Soulmanure, Mellow Gold and One Foot in the Grave. His musical output was matched only by the idiosyncrasy and experimentation of his offerings.
During this period, Beck at his most raw approached the rugged wisdom of any Greenwich folksinger’s espresso-and-whiskey soused breath. At his most random, he could spit off a bridge and hit the Earl of Rochester reading a copy of “Manifeste Dada 1918.” At his most disorderly, the musician was melding trashcan punk, anti-folk and trip-hop, equally ignited by samples as irreverent as field recordings of his own neighbors’ yelling matches or Billy Squier’s “Big Beat.”
But, at his best, Beck was doing everything at once and simultaneously floating above the fray.
Before Odelay there was “Rowboat”
The first track on Johnny Cash’s 1996 album, Unchained, is a cover of Beck’s wistful “Rowboat,” originally released on Stereopathetic Soulmanure. Cash won two Grammys for writing album liner notes in the ‘60s. By 1996, he was long in the tooth but still recording and still writing liner notes. Having never lost his stark sarcasm, Cash starts the album’s liner notes with a lengthy diatribe about the veggie burgers provided to him during the recording of the album. In the second paragraph he writes about “Rowboat.”
“Dog food on the floor. And I've been like this before. Beck's been reading my mail. I do believe that the sum extent of the messiness, disarrangement, disorder and dirtiness of your room is equal to that of your brain. I'm not even going to ask Beck what the lines means, ‘I'll be home with the gasoline.’ Is it for her truck, or to burn her house? I know. In my head I know. I've been like that before. Rowboat, things are much better on the other shore.”
In a few sentences, Cash distills a concept that has pained critics and polymaths for the better part of the Anthropocene. That is, the concurrent significance and insignificance of art. An ideal baked into Beck’s music.
Beck wrote the lyrics for “Rowboat” in less than an hour, immediately before a last-minute session with pedal steel master Leo LeBlanc. As a song, “Rowboat” means nothing really, but it also means everything.
In the scope of his early ’90s oeuvre “Rowboat” fits neatly alongside its folk and blues siblings. Songs like “Modesto,” and “The Spirit Moves Me” on the same album; “Pay No Mind (Snoozer),” “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997,” and “Blackhole” on Mellow Gold; “Get Lonesome,” and “Hollow Log” on One Foot in the Grave and “Alcohol,” a b-side on the “Loser” single.
These songs are Beck’s version of Americana, laid bare across three albums. Their emotional depth is important, as it counters the unreliable narrator in his chaotic, nonsensical songs of the same period.
“I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste”
If Beck’s straightforward folk songs are a baseline, then his absurdist experimental anti-folk are jagged peaks and valleys on an electrocardiogram from hell. Through the aforementioned albums, Beck peppers white noise, drum machines, samples, tape delays, field recordings, sludge riffs, out-of-tune guitars and soundbites. A symphony of rubble.
It might’ve been easy to dismiss it all, if it hadn’t turned out sounding so mighty.
First, the obvious. “Loser” is, to this day, a masterpiece of surrealistic slacker rock, an encyclopedic exhaust pipe of distorted thoughts. But, there may be no better example of the breadth of Beck’s improbable pop weirdness than a three song block on Mellow Gold—tracks 5 through 7, “Soul Suckin’ Jerk,” “Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat)” and “Sweet Sunshine,”
“Soul Suckin’ Jerk” starts out as a counterpart to “Loser,” led by a drum loop and Beck’s rap singing. In the last minute it devolves into various carbon copies of the original chorus—like a Warhol diptych losing its edge with each consecutive screen print.
“Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat)” starts with a recording of Beck’s neighbors arguing and throwing objects. The song is a slow-fi psychedelic narrative that rolls into the sludge metal-influenced “Sweet Sunshine” featuring saturated, crackled vocals and samples of bee swarms.
“It’s like surfing in some oil spillage”
The success Beck saw with Mellow Gold and “Loser” was eclipsed a few years later with his major label debut Odelay, an album that went double platinum. While Odelay retains much of the musical concepts Beck was experimenting with earlier in his career, the artist would eventually stray to a more produced sound and has mostly stayed there up to the present time.
But the basis for all of Beck’s success likely lies in three beautifully deranged albums released in 1994.
Written by E. Ryan Ellis
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