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