The Zombies are arguably (along with the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and the Kinks) one of the top five groups of the British Invasion. Four years after their song “She’s Not There” put them on the charts, they released their final full-length record. Although it might not be as well known as “Sgt. Pepper”, “Are You Experienced?” or Led Zeppelin’s first album, many consider “Odessey and Oracle” to be one of the best records of the 1960s. Best known for the single “Time of the Season”, this record offers ear candy a-plenty. To be sure, it is a period piece, but the vocal harmonies, multi-layered keyboards, unpredictable chord progressions and other baroque pop accouterments are by and large just as enjoyable today as they were over 40 years ago when the record was released.
I’ve had an interesting sort of personal, shall we say, odyssey with this record. During my Hippie period (a brief time in junior high following my 50s rock period and before my hair band and jazz snob periods) I had the Rhino re-issued LP of “Odessey.” (The album’s misspelled title, by the way, was part of the original artwork, and no one caught it until the record was already released.) I found that this was always a record that was best listened to from start to finish, although some tracks are stronger than others and stand fairly well on their own. Although I’d hear “Time of the Season” a lot on the radio, I ended up forgetting about most of the other songs. Recently I found the CD in a thrift store and decided to see if I still enjoyed the songs as much as I did twenty years ago. Answer: pretty damn close.
The main creative forces behind “Odessey” are lead singer Colin Bluntstone; keyboardist Rod Argent, who wrote most of the material, and bassist Chris White, who wrote a few songs as well and whose melodic playing is one of the strengths of the record. Ironically, the guitar is not prominently featured on the record, although the late Paul Atkinson’s playing is tasteful and understated. Holding down the groove is drummer Hugh Grundy.
The opening track, “Care of Cell 44”, sets the bittersweet tone for the record. At first, it seems to be a pedestrian tale of reunited lovers; the twist comes when Bluntstone sings that he is looking forward to his girl telling him “about [her] prison stay.”
“A Rose for Emily” takes a similar tone, lyrically and musically, to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”, swapping out string accompaniments with intricate background vocals. To be sure, the story of the song is pretty bleak, but the track is short enough and melodically appealing enough for it not to feel like dead weight.
“Maybe After He’s Gone” is a clever little bit of pop in which composer Chris White contrasts an unfortunate situation in the verse (using a minor tonality) with a hopeful one in the chorus (major). White also wrote the next two tracks: “Beechwood Park” which has a sort of mysterious, psychadelic quality, and “Brief Candles”, in which the verses (each sung by different members) and chorus contrast nicely in feel. Side one of the LP ended with Argent’s “Hung Up on a Dream”, a moderately-paced pop track with big background vocals that may remind some of the Beach Boys.
In “Changes”, the major/minor duality is again explored, this time with the verses hopeful and nostalgic in the major key while the chorus uses minor. The next two songs, “I Want Her She Wants Me” and “This Will Be Our Year”, are medium-tempo pop numbers, both with a swing/shuffle feel; like several of the other songs on the record they have a “Revolver” era Beatles vibe about them.
Undoubtedly the darkest track on the record, written and sung by White, is “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).” While nominally a story of a soldier experiencing the horrors of World War I, it is obviously a commentary on the Vietnam War. The penultimate song, “Friends of Mine”, is as bright as pop music gets. It would be easy to dismiss it as a bit of ’60s bubblegum, but coming after “Butcher’s Tale”, it seems like a welcome relief – and it’s very catchy to boot. This is an example of how the sequence of songs on a record–something lost in the iTunes age–can help make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
The most famous song on the album is last. “Time of the Season” ends the record similarly to how “Tomorrow Never Knows” ends “Revolver.” The song gives the album a sort of uncertain ending–but not in a bad way; in a “that was good, I want more” way; in a “which direction are we going now?” way.
Unfortunately, the direction that the Zombies went was to split up. Tensions within the band led to the demise, and by the time “Time of the Season” was a hit, Argent and White had already moved on. Their band Argent was best known for the song “Hold Your Head Up.” But while the group’s original run ended, their music has endured, and various members of the band continue to perform together. Has “Odessey” stood the test of time? Perhaps not entirely, but there aren’t many records I listened to at age 14 that still bring a smile to my face at age…well, I’m not going to say. I’ll just leave it at this: “Odessey” is a record I’m glad to have back in my life.