Do It Yourself

Beck’s Album ‘Song Reader’ Is All Sheet Music. We Take It For a Spin

With an approach so lo-tech it’s no-tech, Beck has found a way to make his audience his collaborators. By Malcolm Jones.

There’s no competition really. Beck takes the prize for Most Perverse Offering by an Artist in 2012. OK, there is that giant bathtub adjunct to Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. So maybe Beck should win for Most Delightfully Perverse Offering for Song Reader, his new album, which is indeed an album but one containing no CD, LP, or MP3 download code. Instead, in a format more at home in 1912 than 2012, Beck has given us 20 new songs on sheet music.

If you want to hear this music, you’ll have to play it yourself: on piano, guitar, ukulele, ocarina, whatever. If you don’t know how to read standard notation, you’ll have to find someone to play it for you.

So much for the who, what, when, and where. As for the why, Beck understands that he has some explaining to do, and includes a self-penned preface and an introduction by Slate’s Jody Rosen. For his part, Beck acknowledges that some people encountering Song Reader “will dismiss it as a stylistic indulgence, a gimmick,” and further that a project such as this risks “neutralizing the past” by “encasing it in a quaint, retro irrelevancy and designating it as something only fit for curiosity-seekers or revivalists.” I hope he’s wrong about that.

To be sure, there is a generous tip of the hat to nostalgia here, but it’s not in the music. Each song receives its own loving showcase in the style of sheet music from a century ago, when the cover of the music was the antecedent of what we would come to know as album art—artists including Marcel Dzama, Leanne Shapton, and Jessica Hische were commissioned to create images and iconography, and they have outdone themselves. In addition, Beck and the book’s producers at McSweeney’s (and here let’s just say flat out that currently no one makes more beautiful books than this publisher) have added detailed back pages full of fake ads for other sheet music collections that blend actual titles (“I’m Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail”) with extremely clever parodies (“Why Does a Heart That Longs to Love You Have Two Hands That Won’t?” which is, we’re informed “For sale at all music stores, and select bed and breakfasts”). You don’t have to read a lick of music to enjoy looking at this collection.

Conventional wisdom says that most people won’t know what to do with Song Reader other than look at it. For more than half a century we have been told that technology (radio, record players, CDs, and all things digital) have put homemade music out of business, and that we have gone from a nation where people made their own music around hearth and hayloft to one where we as passive consumers leave all that to the pros. As a confessed YouTube addict, I know that if this was ever true, it’s true no longer—there are thousands upon thousands of amateur musicians out there, covering hit songs, performing their own compositions, playing alone, in small groups and big ensembles. Rosen’s introduction cites the telling statistic that lately, “for the first time in decades, profits from the sale of musical instruments and recording equipment have surpassed those of recordings.” The time couldn’t be riper for Beck’s endeavor.

So kudos for a very cool high/low concept. But we’re begging the question big time: is the music any good? Slick answer: it’s as good as you make it. Beck argues that “one can learn the songs contained here as written, but ultimately they’re only sketches. They’re meant to invite interpretations and improvements above and beyond the way they are on paper.” All that notwithstanding, my honest answer to the question is, I don’t know.

I can make a little music on the mandolin and tenor guitar. I can remember enough from three years of childhood piano lessons to read music. So I sat down with the first song in the set, “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard,” and got to work. Key of G, 4/4 time, verse, chorus, and bridge—there’s nothing terribly complicated about this tune. But right away, I realized that this was going to be harder than I expected.

Most of us who play popular music learn the songs we want to play from recordings—that is, we hear something we like, and we sit down and try to copy it. With Song Reader, this won’t do. I’ve never heard these songs before. I’ve no idea how they “go.” So from the start, my meager sight-reading skills get a workout. Note values, slurs, rests, time signatures—it’s like code to be cracked.

On the first song, for instance, I hear myself forcing a 4/4 melody into ¾ time for some reason. After a bit of stumbling, I figure out that he’s holding some of the notes, delaying the progression of the melody in mid-phrase. So I go back to playing just the chords as marked and the time clarifies at least a bit. Still, I’m not at all sure that I’m playing what he’s written.

I shuffle through the sheet music, avoiding tunes in keys with more than two sharps or flats, until I hit on “Old Shanghai.” “Old men smoking in cafes / Junk boats floating in the bay / Think of me while you’re away / In old Shanghai …” There are accompanying solos charts for trumpet, tuba, tenor sax, and bass trombone, but I ignore all that and concentrate on the melody, which is pretty simple. The music is marked “slow swing,” so I add a bit of a shuffle rhythm, and it sounds all right. I may not be playing the song Beck heard when he wrote it, but I’m playing a song.

Before I had time to pat myself on the back, I clicked on, the website that McSweeney’s built to encourage the bold to post their renditions of these tunes. Already there are more than 100 performances posted—and the book was only published two weeks ago. I did not click on any of the songs I was attempting, but from what I did hear, it was obvious that there are lots of people out there way more talented than I am. Check out the band called Doozy playing “Do We? We Do” like they’ve known it all their lives—and they even threw in an extra verse and a new bridge. Here and elsewhere, it’s the variety of the renditions that fulfills Beck’s dream of offering songs as a jumping-off point: they sound just enough alike to let you know the musicians broke the code of the sheet music, but the real fun lies in their wobbly outlines—sometimes the same tune threatens to turn into two or three different songs.

In other words, the lockstep of mass culture is broken. This is more like a time, say a century ago, before everyone sounded the same. Back then, if you lived in some little town in South Carolina or South Dakota and somehow you learned that, say, “12th Street Rag” was a hit, you went into town and bought the score at the drug store or the furniture store (furniture stores sold pianos, so some carried sheet music; when they started stocking Victrolas, they also sold the records). When you got the sheet music home and tried to play it on the upright in the parlor, your version was just as good as anyone else’s, because there was no point of comparison. So if you want to feel like your own grandpa, go buy these songs and set yourself free.