Of all the critical “reclassic-ifications” in recent years, Odyssey and Oracle is the one I see come up the most. It usually happens in tiresome “Screw Sergeant Pepper and Pet Sounds, I have this semi-obscure baroque pop masterpiece to keep me company!” discussions that only serve to make contrarians feel good about themselves.
Regardless, I remained intrigued by this album despite bad associations with its more rabid fans. I like baroque pop and psychedelic pop, and the combination seemed a good one. As I finally sat down to listen to it, I agreed with that supposition. I heard a bunch of simple, piano-driven pop songs that average out at pretty dang good overall. Not any kind of towering achievement, but a perfectly enjoyable, harmless listen.
I stand before you ready to sing the praises of Odyssey and Oracle as one of, if not the best pop album I’ve ever heard. Yes, more than Pet Sounds. What I initially regarded with dismissive enjoyment I now see as a heavenly collection of brilliant melodies and heart-fiddling lyrics.
I don’t mean to imply that Odyssey and Oracle is inaccessible, or even a “grower” in the traditional sense. All its major strengths are in plain sight: catchy hooks, pretty backing, nice lyrics. Technically, that’s all there is, but looking deeper into WHY those things work makes them deeply rewarding.
The opener, “Care of Cell 44”, is a good example of how satisfying this album is. The melody sticks in the head, like any good piece of 60s pop by the Hollies or Kinks or someone similar. The backing is a bouncy piano, some occasional strings, and a fun chorus. A casual examination of the lyrics during a music-focused listen reveal some pleasant “yay, my loved one is coming back” elaborations.
But for reasons I haven’t quite nailed down, it’s so much more. The melody swings and swells with a beauty and complexity only rarely matched by the Zombies’ contemporaries. The arrangement is upbeat, but carries hints of melancholy reminiscent of Pet Sounds. And the lyrics…well, they’re about meeting a loved one after they just left prison. It can be either hilarious or heartwarming depending on how you want to look at it.
And that’s not even the best song on the album! That would be the most jaw-droppingly perfect exemplification of bliss ever, “Hung Up on a Dream.” It’s difficult to describe why this song works other than resorting to the lazy “JUST LISTEN TO IT” tactic, but holy snap. The fittingly psychedelic atmosphere drips like musical honey all over the deeply melodic strings and percussion, not to mention a simple but breathtaking piano solo at the end. The lyrics, about being mesmerized by a paradise-like dream you just woke up from, are some of the most evocative and engaging on the album.
Other highlights include the heartbreaking piano tune “A Rose for Emily”, the humbly melancholy but surprisingly contented “Maybe After He’s Gone” (boasting one of the best hooks on an incredibly hooky album), the darkly but beautifully nostalgic “Beechwood Park”, the blissful Mindbenders cover “I Want Her She Wants Me”, and of course the big hit “Time of the Season”, which droops groovy psychedelia over a fantastically wistful melody. Oh screw it, almost every song is a highlight, as they all share similar strengths: strong songwriting, beautiful arrangements, soothing vocals, deeply resonant lyrics, and an unmistakable mood of paradise-like bliss.
How in the name of Geddy Lee did I miss all this the first time? Probably because I have a tendency to underestimate pop music in general, and my modern ears often take softening to 60s stuff. No more! Allow me to proclaim from the highest ocean-adjacent cliff I can find to any and all sleeping cruise passengers and 3 AM fishermen: “ODYSESSY AND ORACLE RULES!”
Oh, and the album cover is one of the best ever. Ya’ know, just in case you don’t have eyes.
Music: 5/5 Can’t I put more than 5?
Thematic Content: 5/5
Experience: Finally making it to El Dorado! I mean, there’s a lot of relationship problems, but it’s still El Dorado.
10+/10 (duh). Best Song: Hung Up on a Dream