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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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.

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.

There is an obvious hurdle of musical literacy. Hobbyists may be daunted by the recurring clusters of sharps, a predilection for the metrically off-beat, and calls for instruments like the ukulele, tuba, and trumpet. But the bar for entry is just low enough. Nearly every song comes with notations for piano, guitar, and vocals; a foundational grasp of one or some combination of these three will produce songs with surprising body and warmth, and the task will engage your complete attention without fraying it. Beck writes that he intentionally moved away from the style of his records toward "actual, playable songs" of a 'round-the-campfire quality that "allows others to inhabit them, and to make them their own."

His standard fare of colorful alternative pop has been traded in for old-timey, homey tunes; you're more likely to wave a lighter in the sky than to pull some moves on the dance floor. And yet, the songbook demands a very different, arguably more intense, sort of investment than with Beck's recorded albums. The music cannot be background noise, and seeing a song deconstructed into black mites on the page is akin to seeing a building you pass by every day reduced to a pile of bricks. By presenting understated compositions that nevertheless require substantive effort to piece together, Beck suggests that head-splitting bass and glossy productions aren't so important. Song Reader monopolizes your attention without them.

Long before Song Reader's release, many fans began uploading their versions of pre-released sheet music onto the project's official website. The performances range from grainy, one-person recordings to polished, multi-instrument affairs turned into music videos. Some faithfully follow the sheet music, some add embellishments, and others pare it down to just chords and vocals. The styles: acoustic, classical, retro, rock, even dubstep. "America, Here's My Boy," a song that looked irrevocably joke-y on paper, was performed at a live Song Reader event in London to impressive dramatic effect. As YouTube knows very well, covers of popular music are nothing new, but as Glee knows very well, covers that emulate rather than imitate are rare. Song Reader leaves no possibility of mere imitation.

One enterprising fan uploaded an audio clip from a Beck concert in Osaka five years ago. Beck can be heard singing the first verse of what would become "Please Leave a Light on When You Go" in Song Reader.The spare rendition lasts only 90 seconds before fading into a well-known track from Beck's 2001 break-up album Sea Change. I am unsure if I should feel grateful or cheated to have heard this audio clip. Isn't the point to unhinge the pieces on Song Reader from some absolute, incontrovertible version? But perhaps Beck's performance, all those years ago, is not quite absolute and is very much controvertible. Maybe, the night before, bored in his Osaka hotel and guitar in hand, he hashed out the skeleton of some tune he couldn't quite flesh out, and he decided he would let us finish the song. We might know better.