Odessey and Oracle (1968)

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I came to Odessey and Oracle, like most people, relatively recently. It was maybe 10 years ago I first heard it – an entry in some ‘classic album’ reference guide or other piqued my interest – and I was instantly bowled over by its brilliance. It was recorded at Abbey Road in the summer of 1967, in the immediate wake of Sgt Pepper (it even used some of the Fabs’ leftover instruments from those sessions) and was released in the spring of 1968 to almost universal indifference but, to my ears, it’s every bit the equal of Pepper, and perhaps even surpasses it in terms of its sheer cohesiveness and consistency. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Beatles fan, and when Pepper is good it’s majestic, but it also has its share of fair-to-middling songs. Odessey on the other hand doesn’t really put a foot wrong; it has its lighter, breezier moments sure, but every song is so considered, inventively arranged & beautifully executed that you have to say its probably the superior record.

 

The album was recorded at what was, by all accounts, a pretty ‘make or break’ time for the band. They’d recorded a number singles prior to Odessey & achieved modest success (‘She’s Not There’ was their biggest hit to date), but felt stifled by their record company and the overbearing producers they’d been made to work with. Odessey was their one shot at a magnum opus, to prove their mettle as writers and recording artists while retaining full creative control of every aspect of the work, and boy did they take advantage of the opportunity.

 

The album covers so much musical ground. There are elements of pop, jazz, soul, classical, chamber music, choral music, and there are baroque overtones to some of the arrangements. The chorus to ‘Changes’ has an almost medieval quality. But none of this sounds out of place, which is remarkable. The band obviously had total commitment to & confidence in what they were doing, and that really comes across in the music.

 

It was this album that first introduced me to the breathy, mellifluous vocals of Colin Blunstone. If there’s a sweeter voice ever to emerge from British pop music then I’m yet to hear it. His voice has such a natural aching and yearning to it which, when allied to such beautiful melodies, makes for a truly potent brew. Listen to how he sings the intricate verse melody of ‘A Rose For Emily’; he wrings every ounce of emotion from it without recourse to vocal gymnastics. It’s a tricky melody to sing too, with some unusual intervals, but he makes it sound effortless, much like McCartney was able to do on contemporaneous Beatles songs like ‘Penny Lane’ or ‘For No One’. If you’ve not heard Blunstone’s first solo album, One Year (1971), I highly recommend tracking it down.

 

Bassist Chris White & keyboardist Rod Argent (who also divvied up the songwriting duties for the album) turn in some fine vocal performances too, the former on the haunting ‘Butcher’s Tale’, the latter on ‘I Want Her She Wants Me’. And the blend between the three vocalists is something to behold; some of the harmonies easily bear comparison with the likes of Pet Sounds or classic Bee Gees album of the period, like Odessa (released the same year). Listen to the a capella tag at the end of ‘Maybe After He’s Gone’ to hear what I mean. Rod Argent was a chorister in his youth and his experience in that discipline certainly seems to inform the vocal harmonies, which have a distinct plagal quality at times. Argent’s keyboard playing is also noteworthy; he uses some striking and unusual chord inversions, and his tasteful use of the Mellotron (the Beatles’ Mellotron, no less) adds so much colour and texture to the songs. Chris White’s melodic, McCartneyesque bass-playing underpins the whole affair beautifully.

 

As well as their musical and harmonic attributes, the songs are lyrically arresting too. The album’s opener, ‘Care of Cell 44’ takes the form of a letter to a prisoner from his/her lover, while the bleak but captivating ‘Butcher’s Tale’ is written from the point of view of a traumatised soldier serving in the First World War. These darker subjects are leavened elsewhere by the likes of the optimistic ‘This Will Be Our Year’ and the bouncy, infectious ‘Friends of Mine’.

 

You hear these songs, so filled with originality and creativity, written and recorded the best part of half a century ago, and wonder…where are their equivalents today? Has there been an album recorded by a British artist in the last 10, 20 years anywhere near this good? I’m not sure. What is for certain is Odessey and Oracle is fully deserving of its place in the pantheon of classic albums & should be in the collection of any budding songwriter or lover of melodic, affecting & inventive pop music. 

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