Saturday, January 3, 2009

"Odessey and Oracle," by The Zombies

Almost everybody who knows this album by the Zombies found it through its 1969 hit single, “Time of the Season.” The lyrics are way over the top: “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?” Who talks like that? Not exactly “sweep a girl off her feet” kind of talk, right? I suspect the lyrics were meant to reflect the 1967 “Summer of Love” mindset: strangers meet, strangers exchange love beads, strangers expand their minds, etc. I’m just speculating; I wasn’t there. But the ridiculous lyric has not kept me from loving these 3 minutes and 33 seconds of pure pop perfection.

The song was written by keyboardist, Rod Argent, who later went on to further success in the 1970’s with his band, “Argent,” and also went on to continued success in the 1980’s behind-the-scenes as a producer (Tanita Tikiram’s “Ancient Heart” – see entry forthcoming). “Time of the Season” reached #3 on Billboards singles chart in 1969 – over a year after the album had been released and the band had called it quits. I first remember hearing the record on the radio around the time I was starting grade school in 1976. I found it kind of spooky, starting with Colin Blunstone’s mysterious, whispery, almost raspy vocals. Over the years I became a fan of Blunstone via the other Zombies’ hits from the 1960’s, “Tell Her No,” “She’s Not There,” and also “Old and Wise,” from the Alan Parsons Project’s 1983 album, “Eye In The Sky,” although I didn’t make the connection that it was Blunstone until years later.

Fast-forward to 1987. I was in high school with some discretionary funds and found myself in the record store, looking for Zombies albums. To my good fortune, I found one solitary copy of “Odessey & Oracle” at a small record store near my hometown. The album cover struck me first. Did they intend to misspell "Odyssey?" The artwork seemed so rebellious and dangerous, full of strange, swirly, psychedelic shapes, insane octopus tentacles, and disturbing images of human monsters, mythological creatures, and a figure of a man crying out loud in utter despair. These pieces were mixed with softer imagery of an artist painting, flower pedals, lovers touching and dancing, and some good old-fashioned nudity. Oh, and the first names of the band members were snuck-in as well. It’s essentially everything one might look for in a rock-n-roll album cover, and I was immediately taken by it; I still am. Today, in fact, my copy of the album artwork is framed and hangs in my office, immediately above a Beatles concert poster.

As for the music, there is literally not a weak song on this baroque-meets-psychedelia record, with a possible exception being “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” an anti-war story set in World War 1 with surprisingly graphic imagery depicting the utter horror of war. It’s not a “weak song,” per se, it’s just difficult to listen to and the only one I occasionally skip.

“Care of Cell 44” is a contradictorily cheerful song about a man preparing for the return of his girlfriend a long time away…in prison. It’s possibly the most covered song from the album, most recently by Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles) and Matthew Sweet.

Maybe After He’s Gone” begins with a solitary, echoey guitar and volleys between that and a joyous crescendo of romping piano and shouting Beach Boys-esque chorus. It’s a sad song about romantic rejection of the worst kind: she found a cooler guy. The band creates in this mini masterpiece, this "teenage symphony to God" another polarizing juxtaposition of words and sounds, a song about a horrible breakup with a rapturous chorus and musical accompaniment.

A Rose for Emily” is an allusion to William Faulkner’s short story of the same name. It has a haunting and powerful melody to go along with the heartbreaking lyrics. In one of those late night college chill sessions back in the early 90’s, I witnessed, in fact, the song bring tears to a friend of mine.

The album as a whole is rife with some of the most beautiful vocal harmonies I’ve ever heard. Chris Martin and Thom Yorke were no doubt influenced by Blunstone’s voice and the band’s soaring harmonies. Thematically, the album is all over the place: life and death, love and war, joy and despair, cynicism and optimism, friends and family…kind of like life. Which is ultimately why I love this album so much and why I keep going back to it – I never get tired of it. “Odessey and Oracle,” imperfect spelling and all, sings about what it feels like to be alive.


  1. The Minneapolis smart-pop band Trip Shakespeare used to do a wall-busting cover of Time of the Season as their trademark encore song. They recorded it for 1992's Volt, but that record won't impress you. What will impress are their 1989 A&M album Across the Universe (what should have been their breakout album was ill-timed with a shakeup at the label), the previous Are You Shakespearienced? on TwinTone and follow-up Lulu (for A&M).

    I always thought The Decemberists occupied the musical space created by Trip Shakespeare: Literate. operatic and sexy pop-music for english-major kids.

  2. Band members Dan Wilson and John Munson went on to form Semisonic (whose hit "Closing Time" encapsulates the Trip Shakespeare live years) and Dan went on to earn a Grammy with the Dixie Chicks, which no-one would have predicted in 1988.

  3. Many thanks for the tip, Chris. I’ll seek out Trip Shakespeare (esp. ATU and AYS). And thanks for reading.

  4. Actually, just found Trip Shakespeare on Spotify. My all-day playlist at work today.