This is a first. I’m reviewing an album having only actually heard about a third of it. Of this third, the songs I’ve actually listened to are not performances by the artist whose name graces the album cover. In fact, I’m not sure he’s even heard any of these performances. I know for a fact he hasn’t heard at least one (i.e., mine — more on that later).
As you may have heard, Beck’s new album Song Reader is not an album in the contemporary parlance but a book of sheet music, published by McSweeney’s, comprising 20 original songs and 108 pages, accompanied by original art from Marcel Dzama, Leanne Shapton, Josh Cochran, and Jessica Hische, among others. The concept of Song Reader is at once enticingly postmodern and defiantly old-fashioned. The very notion of recorded music, just over a century old, presently dangles on a kind of precipice. The long-playing album, long the industry’s principle commodity, careens faster with each passing year toward obsolescence, as younger music enthusiasts increasingly turn to Spotify, Last.fm and Pandora for their fixes. Song Reader presents an interesting independent variable inasmuch as it does not proffer a solution to the industry’s woes but a provocative alternative, one whose subtext is so obvious, it’s brilliant: when the industry throws you lemons, nevermind the lemonade — make music.
Here’s the best-case scenario, as far as I can tell: Song Reader inspires a flood of wildly creative Youtube videos of fans making fools of themselves covering these songs, resulting in Pomplamoose-levels of web notoriety for some. Indie dreamboats from Portland to Peoria begin staging theme parties around Song Reader, taking turns performing the songs on the ol’ upright (or the ukulele!), taking the liberties suggested by Beck in the liner notes (“Change the chords; rephrase the melodies. Keep only the lyrics, if desired.”) Maybe they have such a hoot that a few are inspired to open the piano bench to liberate more sheet music — maybe REM’s Green is in there! Pandemonium ensues. Bands are formed, relationships begin. Music reclaims its rightful place as the greatest social activity for persons under 30 since the advent of the drug orgy. Illegal downloading ceases entirely.
Here’s the flipside: This elitist gimmick sinks under its own hubris. Those same indie dreamboats, reared on tablature and synthesizers, are struck with the realization that they’re unable to read music, and remove this very expensive novelty item from their collective Christmas wishlists. The Flaming Lips perform the entire album on New Years Eve with a cavalcade of guest stars, each more throat punch-able than the next. Beck’s next album is an iTunes-only release, and Half.com sinks under the weight of used copies of Song Reader. The History of Wild Rock & Roll Ideas earns another unnecessary footnote.
The cautious optimist in me hopes for the former scenario, while another part of me resists Song Reader. Like many people my age, I tenaciously cling to the idea of an album as a collection of songs on a record, tape or CD, presented in a sequence and packaged in an expected way. I have my reasons. For one thing, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which any one song from Song Reader will be discussed in relation to its place within an album’s hierarchy, despite the fact that the songs are given a sequence and even broken up into two sides (maybe I’m not the only one tenaciously clinging?). Will any tune rise above the 20 others here? Which song is the hit? Which is the ‘sleeper’? What’s the turd? Imagining such consensus for Song Reader is difficult. But albums, at least the way we nerds have known them in our hopelessly obsessive, crate-digging lifetimes, live and die by these types of conversations. Song Reader’s very existence makes an end run around this language, effectively neutering the trainspotting impulse.
Consider, too, how the songbook-without-an-accompanying-record nullifies the idea of the badass sideman or superstar producer. A Tom Waits songbook, for example, would leave a reviewer with nothing to say about David Hidalgo, Larry Taylor, or Marc Ribot. Hell’s bells! Then again, maybe that’s also the point — Song Reader posits the notion of Beck-as-composer, which is a novel idea, especially given how much ground he’s already covered in his 25 years as a performing artist. It’s also worth noting that history is dotted with notoriously exacting figures ranging from Stravinsky to Beefheart to Prince who’ve frequently looked upon the performers of their compositions as mere auxiliary cogs in the great machine, no more worthy of singling out for criticism or praise than, say, a single member of a large choral group performing Mozart’s Te Deum.
Song Reader may dispense with the stringency of the traditional album, but not its fetishistic trappings. Packaged in a stunning dossier, the pages are both a wink and a nod to the halcyon days of Tin Pan Alley cheap sheets of the twenties and thirties — an era that, it is safe to say, no one in Beck’s demographic is old enough to have experienced firsthand. The artwork that accompanies the songs, colorful and rife with references, is uniformly seductive, impressive to behold, and almost worth the sticker price alone. One of my favorites is the mysterious Le Takaes illustration that accompanies the song “Eyes That Say ‘I Love You'” which, with its 1919 copyright date, seems to have been the inspiration for the movie poster for The Eyes of Laura Mars, the 1978 thriller starring Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones. Several pages include fake advertisements, pun-heavy ‘bonus’ tunes pseudonymously penned by Beck himself, or genuinely funny in-jokes. This is still the guy for whom ‘leaf blower’ was once integral to the stage show, lest we forget.
But see, here we are, near the end of the review, and we haven’t discussed the damn songs. I performed one, “Saint Dude,” accompanying myself on electric guitar. As one of those woefully nescient indie rockers for whom sight-reading is a bit of a struggle, to put it mildly, learning the vocal melody proved to be a challenge. When I eventually managed to squeak out some approximation of the tune, I liked what I heard, especially in the lyrics. I also had a lot of fun. I then watched fan renditions of several Song Reader numbers already being hosted on www.songreader.net. It would seem to defeat the purpose of the project for me to review any one single performance, and it’s just as well, because even now, charged with the task of discussing Song Reader, I find myself repeatedly reckoning with the idea of the album rather than the content. This is ostensibly the problem with Song Reader. But is it the album’s problem, or mine?
Here is something I never thought I would write in regards to music and the creation of it — the songs are beside the point. The ones I heard were largely silly and melodically simple (though Beck’s lyrics are mostly superb), and portend the sound of a hundred thousand infernal street corner ukuleles. But either as a means of circumventing illegal downloading, or, less cynically, as a means of rallying music lovers around musical instruments to share in what has increasingly become the preferred hobby of the isolationist, I approve of Song Reader because of the challenge it presents. It throws a gauntlet in a way that shortsighted ‘pay what you want’ schemes and distracting viral videos never could. Unfortunately, despite these noble efforts, there are already pdfs of the album available for free on a bunch of torrent sites. But my version of “Saint Dude” won’t be available anywhere on the internet, and if you want to hear it, you’ll have to come over. Bring your ukulele.
Song Reader is out this month via McSweeny’s.