February 6, 2008

False Pre-Millennium Tension

Odelay's bright sing-songy choruses. The spontaneously planned and fun Dust Brothers samples. The hip-hop beats and alt-country melodies. Diminutive Beck at the MTV Video Music Awards decked out in playful cowboy gear strumming his guitar on top of Radio City Music Hall. They all seemed so contrived so obvious so fake and so boring at the time. 1996 wasn't supposed to be Odelay.

These were the times of romantic pre-millennium tension. 1995's hip-hop masterpieces were bottom-of-the-ocean dark affairs: Mobb Deep's The Infamous, Raekwon's ...Cuban Links, and the GZA's Liquid Swords. Were the Dust Brothers still living in Paul's Boutique? Hadn't they heard of this new hybrid affair called trip-hop and its brooding paragons Portishead, Tricky, Moby, Bjork, and DJ Shadow? The great rock albums, Radiohead's The Bends, PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love were similarly epic, angsty, and anxious. The Smashing Pumpkins' newest album title even included the words "The Infinite Sadness." In 1995, Alanis Morisette's screaming retribution ruled the pop charts, TLC's maddeningly depressing aim-low anthem "Waterfalls" ruled the r&b and MTV video playlist airways. Those albums were the times. Those albums were its mood.

Then came Odelay on June 18, 1996 and the mood changed. The music became more poppy, the times got lighter, things became more hopeful. The Village Voice's 1995 single of the year was Coolio's uber-maudlin "Gangsta's Paradise"; in 1997 the title went to Hanson's "MmmBop," incidentally another Dust Brothers production.

The United States was changing as well both politically and economically. The 1996 Presidential election was expected to be a close affair. A year earlier, Newt Gingrich's Contract With America based -Republican Revolution swept itself into power, conquering both the House and the Senate. The economy was on a downtown, reactionary politics ruled the day, and the young hopeful President from Hope was bound to be replaced by a 73-year-old career Senator who had publicly opposed LBJ's plan for a Great Society in the same year Meet the Beatles was released: 1964.

But the assumed 1997 United States was different, the doomsaying predictions had not come true. Trip-hop would not be the background music. Gingrich had been disposed and his wave of paranoid politics abandoned. Clinton was overwhelmingly re-elected and a tech-based economic boom had begun.

When I listen to Odelay today I hear this (sea) change of thought and American ethos. It's a joyful album that's inclusive, positive, diverse, and exceedingly boom-ready. It's the thrill of your first internet surfing experience, circa 1996 on a dial-up connection. It's slow, promising, surprise laden, fast, not too deep, full of wonder, without limitation, and ultimately very familiar.

Odelay is a welcoming and nonthreatening melange of that crazy world around you. The myriad random voices and musical styles don't attack your sensibilities, they just join the party. Despite the random, purposefully abstract lyrics the album had no edginess; Bob Dole would even like this album! Beware Andrews Sisters. At the same time so did your friends. The goth friends, the jock friends, your hipster friends, the entire range of John Hughes-characters friends.

I wish I had appreciated Odelay more in 1996, but I wish I had appreciated the United States more then too.

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