If you want to hear Beck’s new al­bum, writes Iain Shed­den, you are go­ing to have to sing it your­self

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

fans are in for a sur­prise when he re­leases his new ‘ al­bum’

BECK Hansen has ab­sorbed many in­flu­ences into his mu­sic dur­ing his 20 or so years as a record­ing artist. Blues, rock, pop, folk, soul, hip-hop and more have coloured his ma­te­rial, sep­a­rately and in com­bi­na­tion. So adept has he been in mar­ry­ing nu­mer­ous styles to his in­ven­tive stu­dio tech­niques and sharp lyri­cism that his record­ings, in par­tic­u­lar the al­bums Mel­low Gold (1994), Ode­lay (1996) and Sea Change (2002), rep­re­sent a genre that he pretty much in­vented.

De­spite this ea­ger­ness to ab­sorb the old and make some­thing new and his rep­u­ta­tion for reg­u­larly rein­vent­ing him­self as a per­former, it’s a sur­prise to learn from the 42-year-old singer that his lat­est work was in­spired by the king of croon, Bing Crosby. It’s stranger still to dis­cover that this new col­lec­tion of songs is to be re­leased solely as sheet mu­sic.

The ‘‘ al­bum’’, ac­tu­ally a book to be pub­lished in De­cem­ber, is called Song Reader and fea­tures 20 new songs writ­ten by Beck, in­clud­ing a hand­ful of in­stru­men­tals. As well as the mu­sic and lyrics, the book has ac­com­pa­ny­ing art­work by more than a dozen artists who were com­mis­sioned to il­lus­trate song ti­tles such as Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard, We All Wear Cloaks and Why Does a Heart That Longs To Love You Have Two Hands That Won’t?.

It’s a work of art; but not the sort of art one may ex­pect from a man who spends much of his time in record­ing stu­dios pro­duc­ing his own work or col­lab­o­rat­ing with oth­ers.

If you want to hear these songs you’re go­ing to have to play them your­self or get some­one who reads mu­sic to do it for you. Or you can wait un­til Beck or some­one else records some or all of the ma­te­rial.

What the singer ex­pects to hap­pen is that ‘‘ peo­ple will take lib­er­ties with them ... make them their own. Strip them down, change the chords. Al­ter them any way they want. They’re re­ally just skele­tons. I hope peo­ple will take them and record them and make them bet­ter.’’

Beck re­leased one of the songs, Do We? We Do, to the me­dia in Au­gust and Aus­tralian singer Wash­ing­ton was one of the first to per­form a ver­sion of it, on Triple J. Many more singers, am­a­teur and pro­fes­sional, are sure to fol­low when all 20 be­come avail­able.

Aus­tralians, how­ever, might get to hear a cou­ple of them from the man him­self when he ar­rives in Aus­tralia next month for his first con­certs here since V Fes­ti­val in 2009. Beck is the head­line act at this year’s Har­vest Fes­ti­val, which be­gins in Mel­bourne on Novem­ber 10 with a line-up that also fea­tures Sigur Ros, Griz­zly Bear and the War On Drugs.

‘‘ Pos­si­bly I’ll play some of them in Aus­tralia,’’ he says, al­though he adds that his Amer­i­can pub­lish­ers, McSweeney’s, would pre­fer it if the pub­lic had a chance to put their in­ter­pre­ta­tions on them first.

Whether we hear them or not, there’s no ques­tion that the method of their in­tro­duc­tion to the world is un­ortho­dox, par­tic­u­larly at a time in the mu­sic in­dus­try when down­load­ing new recorded mu­sic in a mat­ter of sec­onds is the norm. That’s where Crosby comes in, al­though we won’t be see­ing Beck in a nice cardie, smok­ing his pipe and singing White Christ­mas any­time soon.

The idea for a sheet mu­sic al­bum has been knock­ing around in Beck’s head since Ode­lay. That ground­break­ing al­bum, fea­tur­ing the sin­gles Devil’s Hair­cut, The New Pol­lu­tion, Where It’s At and Jack-Ass proved world­wide that there was more to Beck than the quirky, an­themic hit Loser that had launched his in­ter­na­tional ca­reer a few years ear­lier.

‘‘ It started when I was just about to re­lease Ode­lay and the pub­lisher had sent me a sheet mu­sic ver­sion of the al­bum that they would sell in mu­sic shops with pi­ano ar­range­ments of the songs,’’ he ex­plains. ‘‘ I thought maybe it would be a bet­ter idea to write a bunch of songs for a song­book rather than an al­bum.

‘‘ Then about eight years af­ter that I was read­ing a book on Bing Crosby, where he men­tioned that one of his songs in the 1930s was so pop­u­lar that it sold 54 mil­lion copies as sheet mu­sic.

‘‘ I was think­ing about how pop­u­lar, how preva­lent, this home­made mu­sic was in cul­ture. So I called up McSweeney’s and we got started work­ing on this book. I kept putting it to the side for years and then I’d pick it back up. Then I’d get cold feet.’’

His reser­va­tions, not un­rea­son­able ones, hung mostly on whether any­one would be pre­pared to learn a Beck song to hear it.

‘‘ Ask­ing peo­ple to learn songs is a big thing,’’ he says. ‘‘ It was very pre­sump­tu­ous of me to present songs to peo­ple that they had to take the time to learn, but as time went on the idea be­came more about our re­la­tion­ship with mu­sic, the hu­man as­pect of it, and about the songs. It was about the songs be­ing a ve­hi­cle for the idea.’’

It re­mains to be seen how Song Reader per­forms as a com­mer­cial ex­er­cise, but that doesn’t ap­pear to be Beck’s pri­mary mo­tive. It’s an ex­per­i­ment, but also a throw­back to the days when recorded mu­sic — par­tic­u­larly vinyl — was the most po­tent cur­rency in pop­u­lar cul­ture. That’s a pe­riod close to the singer’s heart.

‘‘ When you were a kid, if you grew up in the time of vinyl, you bought your vinyl record and you un­wrapped it. You’re rid­ing the bus home and look­ing at the art­work, look­ing at the lyrics, the pho­tos. You’re just scan­ning any in­for­ma­tion in­cluded in the pack­ag­ing, hav­ing this feel­ing about what the mu­sic could be like.

‘‘ For me it re­ally height­ened the ex­peri-

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