Is Beck's Sheet-Music 'Album' a Cop-Out, Radical Art, or Both?

Song Reader forgoes most of what make people love Beck in the first place. But sit down with it, and these 20 songs will command your attention more fully than any recorded versions could.

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McSweeny's

The name that graces every piece of sheet music in Song Reader is "Beck Hansen," in all of its mundane totality, instead of the abbreviated version that has been the musician's stage name for two decades. Perhaps a small detail, even unintentional, but it seems significant in the context of the latest turn in his career. Song Reader is a thick blue folder containing the notations for 20 songs written—but never released or recorded—by Beck. This is no longer Beck the wily performer; this is Beck Hansen as invisible composer. Less is lost in that transformation than you might expect.

A self-professed "champion of music," Beck has long strived for creative generosity and openness, breaking barriers between genres, between artists, and between musician and audience. He likes to remix and reinterpret (in 2009 he started the Record Club, a project in which he and other musicians record a cover of an album in a single day), to collaborate with and produce for other artists (including Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jamie Lidell), and to give his fans a say in creative choices (stickers accompanied every copy of his 2006 album The Information for customizable cover designs). "In an ideal world, I'd find a way to let people truly interact with the records I put out," Beck said in a 2006 interview with Wired, "not just remix the songs, but maybe play them like a videogame." Now, in the preface for Song Reader, he writes that his latest project is "a way of opening music up to what someone else is able to bring to it."

But can an artist be too generous, to the point of self-erasure? Most listeners do not want their favorite musician to be artistically considerate; they want to be awash in his or her essence. Beck's best album, Midnite Vultures (1999), succeeds largely because of his dramatic vocal presence: lust broadcast in gravelly purrs, falsetto wails, and sordid poetry. And his best live performances—nearly all of them from the earlier part of his career—are notable for their impish, bug-eyed energy. A songbook can't provide any of these things and seems suspiciously like a shtick used to side-step the kind of personal engagement that audiences want. (Beck himself writes that some of his friends will dismiss the songbook format as "a stylistic indulgence, a gimmick.") If fans expect Song Reader to provide the same satisfaction offered by a traditional Beck album, they'll be disappointed.

The collection suggests head-splitting bass and glossy productions aren't so important. Song Reader monopolizes your time without them.

They may take heart, though, that Beck's unmistakable aesthetic—whimsical, quaint, quietly comedic, and with a hint of morbidity—can be found all over Song Reader. McSweeney's, its publisher, commissioned more than a dozen artists to illustrate the sheet music covers, many of which are irreverent riffs on the chromolithographic cover of yore, with its bold fonts and spirited illustrations ("Mutilation Rag" shows a woman using a scythe to decapitate her dance partner, who wears a polka-dotted jumpsuit). The back pages feature fragments of farcical ditties and advertising lingo—all penned by Beck—that mimic the aggressive enthusiasm of Tin Pan Alley music sheets: "You can't stop it any more than you can stop a cyclone," we are told of the song "You Looked Alright in the Dark!" The main musical servings, while more serious in tone, have their Easter eggs as well. The tempo mark for "Saint Dude"? Abiding. The cartoonish details are reminders of the songbook's physicality: It's meant to be pored over, even if you can't read music.

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Esther Yi is a journalist living in Berlin.

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