Song Reader: Beck’s Play-It-Yourself Album

It’s a book of sheet music, and if you want to hear it you’ll have to record it on your own

Beck’s latest release may become a hit, but you won’t see any singles topping iTunes—at least, none from the musician himself. The 20 new compositions on this “album” will be bundled and released this Friday (Dec. 7) as Song Reader, a 108-page book of sheet music published by McSweeney’s. Lest there be any confusion, their site warns: “Bringing them to life depends on you.” Here’s hoping you own a guitar.

The mercurial artist behind Odelay and Sea Change has pushed boundaries before, but Song Reader is his first crowd-sourced album. Fans can arrange and upload their own versions to the publisher’s website at Songreader. Over a dozen artists contributed hand-drawn LP covers, including Leanne Shapton, Josh Cochran, Jessica Hische, and Marcel Dzama, who also designed the Guero cover. Faux advertorials parrot the superlative-heavy sales-speak of a bygone era, promising “The Secret to Music is Hygiene,” and offering a Musician’s Gift Guide, a kind of “proto-SkyMall tribute,” says McSweeney’s editor Jordan Bass, who oversaw the project.

If all this old-timeyness smacks of hipster nostalgia, Bass says it was intended to be “more than just a funny provocation.” Don’t play an instrument? The art and writings make it a worthy buy even for musical Neanderthals. (The book retails for $34 at McSweeney’s; for $50, you can grab a limited-edition signed copy.) “It is a quirky and counterintuitive idea,” Bass says. “Obviously, we’re very aware of that. It can be this amazing, unlikely project, and also a really earnest, intense exploration.”

McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers and Beck first discussed collaborating on a songbook in 2004. The singer was fascinated by the era of home music-making, a time when sheet music for Bing Crosby’s “Sweet Leilani” sold 54 million copies—roughly five times the total sales for Adele’s 21 album. As Beck writes in the book’s preface, recently published on The New Yorker site, “I think there’s something human in sheet music, something that doesn’t depend on technology to facilitate it—it’s a way of opening music up to what someone else is able to bring to it.”

Whether fans will jump at the new format remains to be seen. Comments on the artist’s Facebook page range from effusive praise (“utterly brilliant”) to muted disappointment (“very Beckesque, but I would rather hear you perform it”). Over at Songreader, pre-released versions of “Old Shanghai” and “Do We? We Do” have generated a flurry of user videos, from washed-out laptop-cam footage to slick professional packages. Even The New Yorker staff has gotten into the act with a nine-person cover of “Old Shanghai” complete with piano, violin, and tambourine. But don’t expect Bass and his colleagues to follow anytime soon. “We’re more of a karaoke group.”

So if it’s a hit, will McSweeney’s devise a sequel? Sure, says Bass. “We can do player-piano rolls next.”