Odessey and Oracle

1968; Abbey Road Studios; CBS/Date Records

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time may recall my review of Thin Lizzy's Black Rose: A Rock Legend and how I essentially spent the entirety of the piece gushing and screaming about how it was some of the best music I'd ever heard in my life, essentially throwing all sense of professionalism and objectivity to the wind. It stands to this day as simultaneously the most embarrassing and the most accurate music review I have ever written.

I bring this up because while this is not precisely going to be more of the same, I am going to be making the claim that Odessey and Oracle is the best pop album of the '60s, maybe the best pop album of all time, and I am going to try and explain why this is the case, which is going to involve a lot of gushing still, but hopefully I'll be a little bit more eloquent this time than in my previous efforts to explain why this is like THE BEST ALBUM EVER ZOMG.

Seriously, though, this is one of the best albums ever.

Pop music has this thing where it exists in kind of a vacuum, song by song. The situations described in the song, no matter how filled with passion or moving they may be, only exist for the duration of that song, have no roots in the immediate or long-term past and will not continue into the future.

What the Zombies manage to do with Odessey and Oracle, and this is something I didn't even realize I was missing until I heard it here, is give their music the weight of history, a sense that these songs came from somewhere real and might continue to exist outside of the immediate circumstance of the song itself. This is no more apparent then on the opening track "Care of Cell 44", where the protagonist of the song describes how excited he is to see his girlfriend after a long time...because she's been spending a few years in prison. This simple twist does a few things very effectively: It takes the standard "I can't wait to see my baby" trope and turns it on it's head by giving it, if not dire, at least very serious implications about the past and future of this couple. It also makes it so that when the singer sings about how excited he is to see his girl, his voice practically aches with joy at the prospect of his love leaving a place so hideous as a prison and walking into his arms. The lush pop melodies contrast with the nervous joy and almost tangible relief of the lyrics and the song becomes something that you feel you could relate to, a story that you suddenly have more than a passing interest in.

Every song on the album has an effect such as this, making you care about the song outside of the song itself. "Brief Candles", one of the greatest breakup songs ever written, describes three people: One who has accepted the breakup, one who is heartbroken and one who is completely and utterly devastated to the point of numbness. With just a few lines each, these brief candles connect with each other, not in person but in spirit of a sort, and form one overarching narrative about how people deal with their broken hearts. Similarly, "Maybe After He's Gone" has a sense of understated desperation that connects the listener to a familiar situation: a boy and a girl love each other, but one is already taken. It's hard not to feel for the guy as he wistfully hopes that "she'll come back, love me again." It has an air of classicist romanticism to it that helps emphasize the timelessness of the story.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that no other album in rock history has blended classical musicianship with such divine pop sensibilities. Not Genesis, not David Bowie, not even the Beatles. Nobody. At its absolute finest, listening to Odessey and Oracle is like biting into a sweet tangerine and letting the juices run through you, so lush are the melodies and so beautifully does the Baroque meets the modern age. "Brief Candles", mentioned above, is the best example of this synergy, with a violin, piano and guitar that swirl together and become swooningly beautiful, tossing the listener into a cosmic cyclone of vibrant colors and fierce emtions. "A Rose for Emily" works in this way, too, with a simple piano riff telling a story of loneliness that draws comparisons to "Elanor Rigby" and rests in the same league in terms of bleak, elegant storytelling. And "Changes", with its piercing flute and minimalist-but-driving bongo rhythms simply needs to be heard. The simple beauty defies explanation.

The less ambitious pop songs work well, too. "This Will Be Our Year" is simply delightful, and continues the trend of giving the songs historic weight with the line "This will be our year, took a long time to come". It only takes little things like that to turn a song into a confession, a piece of music into an object to store next to your heart. "I Want Her She Wants Me" functions as a by-the-numbers if expertly made story of found love, and "Friends of Mine" is infectiously silly and jubilant. And while "Time of the Season" feels like a single tacked on to move copies in the context of the larger album, by itself it is, of course, one of the defining songs of the late '60s.

There's not enough space in the world to extol all the virtues of Odessey and Oracle, and at the same time words seem pointless. I compared it to Black Rose at the beginning largely for that reason. It's the sort of album that makes you happy you listen to music, that strives for a certain goal and, while accomplishing it, sets a bar that all others will tremble at being forced to reach. If you passed this by for any reason, be it in favor of the greater-known works of the '60s or simply because psychedelic music isn't your avenue, give it a listen: It obliterates genre barriers and utterly flips the script on pop music, simply by finding small things to stand it up with, like filling in the cracks of an aging sculpture with little pieces of gold. The Zombies have created a masterpiece that is all at once timeless, gorgeous, thoughtful and astonishingly, enviously intelligent. I rarely think this, but I am a better person for having heard this album. You might be, too.


1 comment:

  1. Well said. I'll never tire of this classic. You may enjoy my review: http://youmusthearthisalbum.blogspot.com/2009/01/odessey-and-oracle-by-zombies.html