#9: Richard and Linda Thompson, ‘Shoot Out the Lights’ (1982) vs. Beck, ‘Odelay’ (1996)

Now that we’ve cracked the top ten this might be a good time to make an observation about music criticism (especially since the very essence of this blog is based on it). As part of this project I’ve read a boatload of reviews from multiple sources for the acclaimed albums battling it out, and something has become clear – they tend to say a lot of the same things. Certain narratives take hold about classic albums after a while, and every new writer seems to fall into line.

I’m not going to pretend to be above such things – while I have endeavoured to put my own spin on every album I’ve written about, I know I’ve regurgitated the established narrative time and time again.

Which brings us to Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights. I came across this review, from a source that was new to me: Alt Rock Chick (whose slogan is “music reviews with a touch of erotica” – nice!). I love this review (even though she doesn’t like the album as much as I think she should) because she opens with a beautiful rant about critical consensus. Here’s a taste:

“What’s sad is that many music listeners parrot the words and thoughts of Establishment critics instead of thinking for themselves. This dynamic helps create a common consensus around a particular work…people who have accepted the common consensus—in large part because it validates the feeling of being “right” and lets them feel like they “belong” to a cohesive thought community…”

She goes on to argue that everyone talks about Shoot Out the Lights as the Thompsons’ “divorce album”, leading them to conclude that every song is either Richard or Linda (they take turns on lead vocals) railing against the other about their disintegrating marriage. In fact, an honest look at the lyrics should tell you only two of the nine songs are actually about this.

She’s right. While the couple was undergoing a divorce at the time, it’s clear they had a lot more to say than “screw you, no screw you”. My personal favourite is “Wall of Death”, which uses an amusement park ride to say you’re never more alive than when you’re living on the edge. One of my favourite album closers ever.

I’ve loved this album for many years and occasionally puzzled over the “divorce album” narrative. A lot of the songs really did seem to be about other things, but who was I to question? Well, thank-you Alt Rock Chick for letting me know I may have been on to something.

I also occasionally puzzled over why I like the album so much; in many ways, the songs are fairly ordinary pop songs. This time, I figured it out – it’s all about Richard’s guitar work. This probably should have been obvious to me all along because, seriously, the guy is amazing – he creates an entirely different sound on every song. Sometimes smooth and soothing (“Just the Motion”), sometimes smooth and foreboding (“Did She Jump or was She Pushed”), sometimes nervous and jittery (“Man in Need”), sometimes downright menacing (“Shoot out the Lights”). Whatever the mood, he can create it with six strings.

But is it enough to win against a 90s titan?

Beck’s Odelay is what happens when an artist is operating at the peak of confidence and creativity.  It’s a country/folk album mashed with a hip hop album, sprinkled with every other genre and pumped full of innumerable samples (courtesy of producers the Dust Brothers). The lyrics are as nonsensical as they are fascinating. The whole thing shouldn’t work, it ought to be mess; but it’s not a mess, and it totally works. At 14 tracks you might argue it’s too long but I’m at a loss as to what to delete.

Bottom line: It’s fantastic – a “sonic tapestry” (speaking of music criticism consensus, I totally stole that from this review). Also speaking of music criticism consensus, it’s hard to find a review of Odelay that does not talk about the fact that it came on the heels of Cobain/grunge and that Beck was the king of the slackers (or some similar thing). Oh well, that’s how it goes – read, rinse, repeat.

I was pretty down with Odelay back in the day, but not hugely, and haven’t really listened to it since. This is my loss. Rediscovering it now, I find particular joy in the little details:

  •  the whistle at the beginning of “Sissyneck”
  •  the fact that “Readymade” has little pops to make it sound like an old LP
  •  the saxophone on “The New Pollution”
  •  The digital voice on “Where It’s At” – two turn tables and a microphone!
  •  The fade-out lyrics on “Lord Only Knows” – “…going back to Houston to the hot dog dance / going back to Houston to get me some pants.”
  •  About a million other things

The best song of all is “Jack-Ass” and I was excited to learn this time out that the gorgeous base of the song is actually Them’s cover of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. Everything about that makes me happy.

Wrapping up, I came into this battle cheering for the underdog, my old favourite Shoot Out the Lights. But facts are facts and I suspect any critic out there would agree…


WINNER: Beck, Odelay (5 points)


80s: 18

90s: 24

80s: 47
90s: 63

Next week’s post – #8: R.E.M., ‘Murmur’ (1983) vs. The Notorious B.I.G., ‘Ready to Die’ (1994)

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