The 10 Club: Odessey And Oracle by The Zombies (1968)

The 10 Club is a new series where our writers look back at albums from decades past that they consider worthy of the 10 out of 10 honour. The first in the series will look at Jem’s pick for the 1960s, The Zombies’ 2nd album Odessey And Oracle.

One mantra here at Not A Sound is that there can only be one album blessed with the elusive 10/10 rating –also known as “the Generational Classic”– per decade per writer. And yet, in the opinion of this particular writer, the 1960s have four. Maybe even more. It should not be too much of a surprise, as pop music as we know it was still growing up and innovations we now take for granted were just being realized. This of course yielded several brilliant albums. Three of my picks might be deemed “obvious” by most. There is a Beatles album, Revolver, and there is a Dylan album, Blonde On Blonde. Of course there’s Pet Sounds (shout out to The Beach Boys Today! for being nearly as good but not getting half the shoutouts). These are all albums that have gotten, deservedly, plenty of lip service. Which is why I bring up the “Generational Classic” that was made by a band that wasn’t inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame until 2019, despite being eligible since 1990 (Note: other contenders for the 10/10 rating include Love’s Forever Changes and maybe one of the Velvet Underground albums, but I digress).

The Zombies’ opus Odessey & Oracle has quite a bit in common with at least two of the aforementioned albums. The London quintet had their roots in the British beat sound that The Beatles were the primary ambassadors of to the rest of the world, and their 1968 outing saw them vastly expanding their ambitions, just as Revolver did with the Lads from Liverpool. And alongside Pet Sounds, Odessey is commonly regarded as a seminal chamber pop album (I’ve seen it called an autumnal version of Pet Sounds by another writer, which I wouldn’t completely concur with but it gives you an idea). Another thing it shares with Pet Sounds, sadly, is a lack of success upon release; the album’s release was hampered by indifference from audiences in their native England, and they initially failed to find a hit Stateside as they had with “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No,” pop gems that carried their debut album in the US. Though an album bursting with potential singles, the label confusingly chose the precise opposite of single material, “The Butcher’s Tale,” as the album’s second single to cash in on the growing antiwar movement. It backfired.

Whatever the reason for the delayed success, a listener in 2021 might find its initially lukewarm reception odd (or this one does, at least). Partially recorded on the same Studer four track as one Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Odessey carries just as much psych-pop magic as that monumental record. Most tracks are digestible for those on a pop-music diet, with not a single one passing the 4 minute mark; at the same time, the arrangements are rich and imaginative, arguably on par with The Beatles more than other bands mentioned in the same breath (The Rolling Stones, The Who). Already dishing out a fresh-at-the-time combination of beat, jazz, and R&B in 1964 via “She’s Not There” et al, Odessey saw the band expanding their sonic palette with sprinkles of folk, worldbeat, and baroque, all on twelve tracks that never miss the mark in terms of pure, simple melody.

Opening with a sprightly dulcimer-like keyboard jingle, “The Care Of Cell 44” rings in the album with perhaps the most cheerful sounding song about a prison sentence ever written. The lyrics hide this little twist for most of the song’s first minute, cleverly dressing it up in tropey lyrics about reuniting lovers (see “It Won’t Be Long” and “Wait” by our four friends from Liverpool): “Good morning to you, I hope you’re feeling better baby. Thinking of me while you are far away…stayed in the room you used to stay in every Sunday. The one that is warmed by sunshine every day. And we’ll get to know each other for a second time, and you can tell me about your prison stay.” The clever drop of darkness is a sort of running thread throughout the album; although a few songs have overt darkness and melancholy bubble over (i.e. the wartime carnage in “The Butcher’s Tale”), even the warmest songs such as the nostalgic “Beechwood Park” and the jubilant “This Will Be Our Year” imply separation and gruelling trials. One looks longingly back, the other looks longingly forward. The second track “A Rose For Emily” similarly dresses up its dark themes of loneliness and mortality in summertime sun and the simplicity of a nursery rhyme, but does it in a perfectly fitting arrangement of one lone piano, with four part vocal harmony as the only thing accompanying it. Borrowing its title from a William Faulkner short story, the song is not a literal retelling of the story so much as it is a focused meditation on one of its themes, the theme of loneliness. Loneliness is prevalent throughout the twelve songs; the jealous rejected lover in “Maybe After He’s Gone” mourns “I feel so cold I’m on my own. As the night folds in around me, night surrounds me; I’m alone.” In more humourous fashion, the penultimate track, the punchy pop ditty “Friends Of Mine,” sees the narrator paying tribute to his friends who are in couples rather than any of his own lovers…perhaps because he doesn’t have any. “And when I’m with her, she talks about you, the things that you say, the things that you do…And when I feel bad, when people disappoint me, that’s when I need you two to help me believe.”

 Loneliness is nonetheless contrasted with love and companionship in this number; the most jarring example of this contrast comes in the beginning of the third act of the album; one of the most celebrated of all Zombies songs, “This Will Be Our Year” is perhaps the warmest track on the album, with bright pianos bolstered by a jovial “Penny Lane” like horn section, giving it a festive feel. Indeed, with lyrics like “the warmth of your love’s like the warmth from the sun” and “I won’t forget the way you said ‘darling I love you, you gave me faith to go on,” this song is played at many weddings to this day. It is followed by the album’s most divisive, yet no less brilliant, track, “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” a cold meditation over a lone organ (later joined by the brief ghostly whistle of an electro-theremin) on the isolation brought on by war. The song’s most gruesome verse sees the narrator mourning another kind of seperation, the death of a friend: “And I have seen a friend of mine, hang on a wire like some rag toy; and in the heat the flies come down and cover up the boy.” The sequencing decision of juxtaposing these two clashing songs may be a little jarring to some, but to me it quite potently drives home the album’s oft-underappreciated themes.

While the album remains timeless, there are certainly some zeitgeisty moments that also make it timely. The iconic “Time Of The Season” has seen a lot of action in Hollywood period pieces alongside “White Rabbit” and “Get Together,” with lyrics that bring to mind free love over a sultry bassline and jazzy keyboard solos by the virtuosic Rod Argent. The other (sadly less appreciated) zeitgeist piece is “Hung Up On A Dream,” which paints the classic picture of people with “flowers resting in their hair.” In the narrator’s recalling of a journey through a strange new world, the people “spoke with soft persuading words about a living creed of gentle love.” The creed of love that swept through the 1960s however was “just a dream.” The narrator, like many who may sit back and ponder over what had happened 55 years ago, resigns to the fleeting nature of his dream and the ideals they brought: “Sometimes I think I’ll never find such purity and peace of mind again,” all over a quasi-ethereal melody that makes the listener feel like they are flying.
Odessey & Oracle is bursting with stories and beautiful melodies that never waste one second of its 35-minute running time. To this day it remains a cult favourite to a certain club that get more excited about songs like “Brief Candles” over Hollywood A-lister “Time Of The Season,” and may well be one the earliest examples of the “critical reappraisal” phenomenon that has turned once-overlooked-or-modestly-received albums like In The Aeroplane Over The Sea or Spiderland into classics perpetually praised on online music forums. Artists as diverse The Jam’s Paul Weller, The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs, and Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt have named the album an all-time favourite. Though they continue to tour mostly as a nostalgia act, playing shows at state fairs or mid-size venues, The Zombies will forever hold the honour of creating one of the absolute best albums conceived in a decade where pop-music truly grew up into an art-form. All with an album whose best remembered line is “Who’s your daddy?” Can Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson claim that?

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