The new album by Beck doesn’t actually exist – at least, not on vinyl or CD or in any replicable audio format. Beck Hansen hasn’t played a note of his latest collection of songs. Rather, Song Reader is an album in a much older sense of the word: a hardback folio of printed sheet music with words and notated scores for 20 new compositions. If you want to hear them, you have to play them yourself, or find someone who can.
Beck has toyed with interactive gimmicks before – remember the stickers that came with The Information that allowed you to customise your own cover? But Song Reader goes beyond gimmickry. Simply as a physical artefact, it is elaborate and beautiful. Each song appears as an individual music sheet, like the ones you might find in junk shops or piano stools, each with an illustration on the front, amplifying the theme of the song.
Beck and his visual collaborators have made a real study of this archaic genre and each piece pays homage to a different period of design. Now That Your Dollar Bills Have
Sprouted Wings, a song evidently inspired by the present economic crisis, is illustrated in a graphic style evoking the Great Depression. Eyes That Say I Love You, a piano ballad with Bacharachian overtones, goes for appropriately early 70s typography and period airbrushing.
And there is diverting humour to be found on the back pages, with their hyperbolic advertisements for other (presumably fictitious) song collections. Personal favourite:
Songs You Won’t Be Able to Get Away From and Otherwise Inescapable Melodies, including the titles I Know We Just Met (But I’ve Been Following You For a While) and When You Are Sleeping You Know I’ll Be There (in the Yard).
On one level you could see Song Reader as a response to the state of the music business. With the market for physical recordings in steep decline and the viability of downloads open to question, why should an artist make recordings at all? If people are going to steal your music, Beck seems to be saying, at least make them work for it.
Yet the underlying tone of Song Reader is more generous than that. The notion it fosters is a heart-warming one, of groups gathering in intimate spaces to make music together like the parlour concerts of some pre-mass media age. This is the kind of fun you can have without YouTube, Facebook or cellphones or even electricity.
Of course, one of the many ironies is that it is as a result of such media that these homespun performances are now being shared on a mass scale, which is effectively how Song Reader is being heard. Only weeks after its release, there are literally thousands of versions of the songs online, ranging from solo ukulele to small orchestra, from synth-players to swing bands.
You could spend ages trawling through the different recordings, or start with some of the playlists people have already put together. Try bit.ly/TyMrVT. An early favourite appears to be Old Shanghai, a piece of nostalgic whimsy with the cosmopolitan air of a Hoagy Carmichael standard.
Although the songs still contain traces of Beck’s trademark absurdism – “Salamander rolling zig-zag, marching to a humdrum, between the truth and a cryptogram, like
skeletons struck dumb” go the opening lines of the enigmatic We All Wear Cloaks – he has largely set aside the quirky and modernist devices of his records and turned his hand to writing the kind of songs anyone might want to play.
And for the most part he has succeeded. Song Reader shows an attention to the tools of the craft – the construction of melody and lyric – that harks back to a time before rap, before rock, before records even. If you ever doubted that Beck Hansen is one of this generation’s finest traditional songwriters, the tunes in Song Reader make a convincing case. Go on, play one.
SONG READER, Beck (Faber and Faber).