Beck’s new print-only al­bum is old school and then some

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - OPINION -

Becks’s new al­bum is of­fi­cially called Song Reader, but per­haps it should be reti­tled The Do It Your­self Al­bum. Not avail­able on vinyl, CD or MP3, Song Reader is 20 songs long but only ex­ists as sheet mu­sic. In other words, you have to play it your­self.

It’s a sort of com­mu­ni­tar­ian vibe, or as Beck him­self has it: “Th­ese songs are meant to be pulled apart and re­shaped. The idea of them be­ing played by choirs, brass bands, string en­sem­bles – any­thing out­side of tra­di­tional rock-band con­structs – is in­ter­est­ing. I think some of the best cov­ers will be those that reimag­ine the chord struc­ture, take lib­er­ties with the melodies, the phras­ing, even the lyrics them­selves.”

Sheet mu­sic is pop’s pri­mor­dial past. A to­tal anachro­nism in to­day’s dig­i­tal age, the for­mat speaks of Vic­to­rian mu­sic halls and front par­lours, where songs would be passed around on pieces of pa­per.

Beck got the idea for a sheet mu­sic re­lease early in his ca­reer, when a pub­lisher sent him a sheet mu­sic ver­sion of one of his first re­leases. There was some­thing about see­ing his grandiose mu­si­cal ideas re­duced to no­ta­tion that shocked him: how could one pos­si­bly re­duce mu­sic to dots on a page? But he imag­ined re­vers­ing that process one day.

Around the same time, he heard a story about a Bing Crosby song called Sweet Leilani, which back in 1937 had sheet mu­sic sales of around 55 mil­lion copies, such was its pop­u­lar­ity and the de­sire of peo­ple to play it them­selves.

The beauty of Beck’s “al­bum” is that it high­lights how learn­ing to play a song your­self is some­thing very spe­cial. In a trashy, lip-synch pop world, the sheet mu­sic re­con­nects to an al­most for­got­ten time when per­for­mance su­per­seded pre­sen­ta­tion.

Al­ready YouTube and as­sorted sites are full of peo­ple’s own ver­sions of the tracks from Song Reader, and Beck him­self will even­tu­ally record his own ver­sion for an ortho­dox CD/MP3 re­lease. By no means a nov­elty re­lease, Song Reader is per­haps an at­tempt to re­po­si­tion pop­u­lar mu­sic away from its cur­rent MTV/ Amer­i­can Idol/ ring­tone-in­fested cul­ture.

“I won­dered if there was a way to ex­plore that world that would be more than an ex­er­cise in nos­tal­gia” says Beck. “A way to rep­re­sent how peo­ple felt about mu­sic back then – and to speak to what was left in our na­ture of that in­stinct to play pop­u­lar mu­sic our­selves.”

What strikes is the many dif­fer­ent ways peo­ple are go­ing about the task (and the up­take on th­ese songs is huge so far). While some stay rigidly faith­ful to the sheet mu­sic no­ta­tion, oth­ers em­bel­lish and some re­duce it just down to vo­cals. From clas­si­cal to acous­tic to dub­step, the whole mu­sic world seems to be hav­ing a go at the songs on Song Reader.

Is the same im­pulse to cre­ate mu­sic that was there in 1937, when the sheet mu­sic to Sweet Leilani sold 55 mil­lion copies, still there? As Beck has it: “Th­ese songs are here to be brought to be life – and to re­mind us that, not so long ago, a song was only a piece of pa­per un­til it was played by some­one. Any­one. Even you. bboyd@irish­ Song Reader is pub­lished by Faber and Faber

Ev­ery­body wants in on Beck’s

Song Reader

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