The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle is one of the crowning albums to come out of the ’60’s British Invasion, is easily a masterpiece and is one of my personal favorite albums.
(The following write-up is mostly because I likely won’t be doing many updates this next week.)
Odessey and Oracle
Released in June 1968 shortly after the band’s dissolution, Odessey and Oracle draws obvious and heavy influences from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with a layered, baroque pop sound and some psychedelic influences from early Pink Floyd. It was also partially recorded in the famous Abbey Road Studios.
The album’s core strength lies in its songwriting, from the group’s two songwriters Chris White and Rod Argent, which mainly focuses on the standard love themes of the time period’s pop music. Containing a far mix between the optimistic puppy love typical of ’60’s sunshine pop (“Care of Cell 44,” “I Want Her, She Wants Me,” “Time of the Season”) and the heartbroken (“Maybe After He’s Gone,” Imagine the Swan”) the album’s most notable feature in terms of songwriting is its incredible grasp of the concept of nostalgia and sentimentality. The constant focus on time, whether through a fading picture (“Imagine the Swan”) or a lost memory of another place (“Beechwood Park”) gives the album a timeless feeling. While this feeling is heavy in classic rock, Odessey and Oracle is more deliberately focused on capturing the feeling of the long-lost than appealing to the actual existence of another time.
Song by Song:
1. Care of Cell 44
The album’s main single, “Care of Cell 44” has become a minor classic in pop music, despite being released in total indifference by the band. The song features the standard songs of a protagonist waiting to see his long-lost love, but in a unique bent exemplary of the kind of songwriting that makes Odessey and Oracle distinct, the protagonist’s lover has been in prison. This simple bend in a cliched subject matter isn’t elaborated upon. We don’t know why she has been in prison or even how long, only that the protagonist really just can’t wait for her to come back. This negligence on the singer’s part only helps strengthens the core idea of love so heavily emphasized in these types of pop songs. Simply put, he doesn’t care why she was there and thus neither should we.
“It’s gonna be good to have you back again with me
Watching the laughter play around your eyes”
2. A Rose for Emily
Songs mentioning girls’ names are often of the super-loving, but “A Rose for Emily” is incredibly sad. Its a song about a lonely, unloved girl named Emily. Hardly optimistic, the song is like a much more personal “Eleanor Rigby” on steroids. Rod Argent’s songwriting is driven by nothing other than a clanging piano and backing vocals. Simple in concept, the song hits strong enough lyrically to be punching. Short and somber “A Rose for Emily” doesn’t rewrite the formula of lonely pop song, but by making it about someone else–a girl even–The Zombies change it enough to make it their own.
“She watches her flowers grow
While lovers come and go
To give each other roses from her tree
But not a rose for Emily…”
3. Maybe After He’s Gone
“Maybe After He’s Gone” continues the sadness, but in a much more traditional way. A fairly typical pop song about a lover who’s left the singer for another, the song’s strength is the production. While lyrically nothing special, the sonic difference between the verses the chorus is what makes the song unique. The somber verses are held together by an acoustic guitar and light backing vocals, while the chorus has the backing vocals much more upfront, with drums and a banging piano creating an explosion effect. One of the weaker songs on the album, but a solid pop song. Its problem lies more in its surrounding songs that trump it than the song itself.
“She told me she loved me
With words as soft as morning rain”
4. Beechwood Park
“Beechwood Park” is one of the strongest examples of The Zombies’ ability to capture a sentimental feeling that is largely nonspecific to a time period. The experiences of the lovers in the titular Beechwood Park are not exclusive to any age group, as may be typical of teen-focused pop. The strongest part of this song is its chorus which serves as the strongest expression of the singer’s nostalgia. The imagery of the verses sets up the chorus by painting an idyllic picture of a sort of perfect world. This imagery creates a seemingly separate time and world that while perfect, doesn’t exist. Existing only within the mind of the narrator whose memories are his own torture. He can’t escape the perfect world of Beechwood Park, unreal though it may be.
“Do you remember golden days and golden summer sun
The sound of laughter in our ears
In the breeze as we would run?”
5. Brief Candles
“Brief Candles” is one of the strongest songs lyrically on Odessey and Oracle, detailing two lovers separating. Musically, the song continues the Zombies’ usage of a somber verse with a much more upfront chorus. The song’s lyrical strength comes from its imagery, which moves from her hands tight on her glass, to the “tiny gems of memory” of the chorus. The song also notably draws a comparison between a much more weak man and a strong woman, with the woman leaving the man because she no longer needs him. The verses each end with a variation on “She’ll be better off this way,” making each more stinging as this sentiment becomes weaker and more bitter.
It’s also worth noting that placing this song after “Beechwood Park” is a good example of how sequencing can affect the meaning of a song. Were we to take the two songs together, with the man of “Brief Candles” later narrating “Beechwood Park” it becomes much sadder, as its clear that he is not at all “better off this way.”
“He does not say a single word
No word of love to say
Maybe he will soon believe he’s better off this way…”
The full lyrics can be found here.
6. Hung Up on a Dream
As its name would suggest, “Hung Up on a Dream” is about a singing narrator detailing his dream of an ideal world, though its subliminally more likely about drugs . The lyrics contain some of the most focused imagery of all of the entire album, detailing some pretty fantastic images vividly. Despite its drug-inspired underpinnings, the song still contains the same thematic elements of other songs of on the album. The singer still wants to go back to where he was before and escape from his current reality. Its also worth noting that its fairly atypical structure-wise, containing no distinct chorus and an instrumental break after the first verse.
Despite being a kind of hippy-ish song, the song’s perspective of the idyllic world being far away is in many ways in opposition to hippy ideals. The song seems less about making reality a happy, loving place than about escaping the worse realities.
“They spoke with soft persuading words
About a living creed of gentle love”
“Changes” is one of my favorite songs on this album from a purely musical stand-point. Opening with the communal sound of a bongo and several voices, the song details the changes that have been wrought upon the singer’s lover. The communal-sounding choruses serve as the images of her past, (continuing on the nostalgic themes of Odessey and Oracle) which center around nature imagery, while the verses are about her new-found values that lie in materialism and possessions. Continuing on the Zombies’ lyrical tenacity, the song’s imagery is short and striking, drawing a comparison between the nature of her past self, and the almost childish possessions of her changed self. A pretty brutal critique, the first verse ends with the sarcastic questions “Isn’t she smart?/Isn’t she grand?” as if her new possessions of “diamond and stones” have made her any better a person. This song is notable in that it is less sentimental and much more bitter than the rest of the songs on Odessey and Oracle.
“I knew her when winter was her cloak
And spring her voice”
8. I Want Her She Wants Me
In lieu of all of the sadness, the Zombies bring it back with the much happier “I Want Her She Wants Me,” about two lovers who are presumably just starting a relationship. Simplistic as can be and a perfect example of ’60’s pop, this song is necessary to bring up the dreariness of the previous few songs. More a song that serves a function in the context of its album than anything, “I Want Her She Wants Me” is nothing to write home about and the kind of song that would be forgotten were it not on such a classic album.
“There’s nothing on my mind
And life seems kind
Now, I want her she wants me”
9. This Will Be Our Year
The Zombies continue with another optimistic song about the beginning of a relationship, the title of which could probably be a campaign slogan, but that would take away from the song, I think. The strongest part of this song is its second word, “warmth.” Quality-wise, it may just be my version, but the song sounds like its run through a radio which helps it feel cozy and kind. A much stronger song than that before it, “This Will Be Our Year” is full of horns and a deep bass sound that give an atmospheric quality akin to “Penny Lane.” It’s also one of the few songs not about looking into the past and only the second to be optimistic about the future, “Care of Cell 44” being the other. This is simply kind and warm and it asks nothing more than to be just that.
It also proves that The Zombies weren’t just a bunch of sad British kids all the time.
10. Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)
In direct opposition to the song before it is the utterly cold and damning “Butcher’s Tale.” Strikingly different than the rest of the album, it details the story of a butcher drafted for the British Army in World War I with some all-too-vivid imagery. Despite its dramatic differences in tone, it does not feel out of place as it maintains the theme of escape from reality that drives a large part of the rest of the album. Musically, its held together by an ancient organ and Colin Blunstone’s chilling vocals whose screams to leave sound like he’s dying. It’s dissonant and frightening.
“But he don’t have to hear these guns
And I’ll bet he sleeps at night”
11. Friends of Mine
Making “Butcher’s Tale” even more of an anomaly is the poppy “Friends of Mine.” Thematically, the song is atypical of pop songs by being an ode to friends in love, as opposed to simply an ode for simply being in love. Similar to “This Will Be Our Year,” this song has a wonderful feeling of warmth underneath it. The song is so entirely selfless with the narrator’s happiness being derived from simply seeing his two friends in love. It’s a much nicer take on a typical love triangle situation, with no hurt feelings and everybody happy it’s a kind little reminder that happy people can be a source of happiness in and of themselves.
“And when I feel bad
When people disappoint me
That’s when I need you two
To help me believe”
12. Time of the Season
The other big, notable song from Odessey and Oracle is “Time of the Season.” All about loving the song’s strongest point is its unique instrumentation; instead of drums the backing rhythm track is a clap and an “ahh” with a warm clean bassline that is memorable in itself. Colin Blunstone’s sultry vocals are augmented by the backing vocals that repeat what he says. And in Zombie fashion, the chorus explodes with the line “It’s the time of the season for loving.” Catchy and overtly sexual, “Time of the Season” is one of those perfect summer pop songs that probably went nicely with Sgt. Pepper’s for the Summer of Love.
“What’s your name? Who’s your daddy?”
13. I’ll Call You Mine
The second half of Odessey and Oracle is clearly a more positive affair than the first half and it culminates in “I’ll Call You Mine,” a perfect love song. Driven by a hopping piano that follows the notes of the vocals singing about past hesitation and new-found love. Curiously, in the song, the girls comes to the narrator continuing a motif of weak men and strong women. The song is sweet in the purest sense and feels youthful and timeless. The innocence of this song is in direct contrast to the sultry song before it.
Helped along by an extremely catchy and memorable melody the song is, as its sole comment on SongMeanings says, “the loveliest of love songs.”
“But now you’ve come to me
(I’ll call you mine)
You’ve brought your love to me
(I’ll call you mine)”
14. Imagine the Swan
My favorite song on the album is its last. After a longer 5 second fade out from “I’ll Call You Mine” a slow harpsichord starts up. Colin Blunstone’s vocals come in sounding dour and lonely singing about a picture of a lover that he keeps in his room. Written in first person as a direct address to this lover, the song details his encounter with her and the realization that she isn’t what he remembers her to be, what the picture shows. Lyrically, the song is pure poetry.
I think this is a song that speaks for itself, so I’m not going to write much about it. If it hits, it hits and if it doesn’t then I doubt there’s much I can do for you.