Before this review begins in earnest, I must warn the reader that the writing is not, and does not attempt to be, unbiased. Beck bothers me.
It’s not just that he uses music from African-American sources to provoke laughter yet raids every white singer-songwriter cliché when he wants to get serious. No, it’s more than that. From the beginning, he has more often than not won approval for being some kind of cultural barometer, a sign-of-the-times, this-is-where-we’re-at artist that allowed alternative fans to enjoy ‘modern’ music while also feeling superior to it. This is no place to dwell on Beck’s overall shortcomings, though. Today I must narrow my gaze and focus on his most recent endeavor.
Beck’s latest release is Song Reader, a book of sheet music. When is the actual album coming out I hear you cry? Hold on to your hats, dear reader, and prepare yourself for a bombshell. There is no ‘album’. This is it. Twenty songs of sheet music. No recorded music, just the musical blueprint. This release has provoked much excitement, and generated massive amounts of press interest, due to its unorthodox nature. What was Beck thinking? What’s your opinion of it? With most modern marketing campaigns we are almost forced to have an opinion. To cite one example, many people probably just wanted to shrug at the idea of Radiohead releasing an album free but as internet chatter went into overload many of us felt the need to contribute. Even if it was just to say that we felt like shrugging. In this instance I do have an opinion on Song Reader. I think it’s bullshit.
First off, there’s nothing interesting about releasing sheet music, even in this day and age. It happens all the time. The reason people are interested is because it’s Beck. The concept tickles their fancy. Throw in the fact that it is being released as a limited run via McSweeney’s, that maker of readymade collectibles for the discerning indie fan, and you can practically see the pools of saliva forming all over America. And that’s the problem. Most copies of Song Reader will undoubtedly remain unopened. It will sit proudly on a shelf as a sign of excellent taste and, as available copies double then triple in price on the internet, the various owners can congratulate themselves on the fact that they placed a bet on a sure thing.
Next, Beck is a terrible songwriter. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying he doesn’t have any good songs. What I am saying is that his songs rely more on how they were recorded than anything inherently musical. I have no problem with the studio being part of the writing process. I embrace it wholeheartedly. I don’t think songs have an idealised Platonic form that naturally comes out in the studio. I think the craft of the song matters, but so does how it was recorded, and so does the studio performance. Stripped of their performance aspect, Beck songs are sorry affairs. Lyrically, melodically, and harmonically they are uninteresting. Beck selling sheet music is like McDonald’s selling a recipe book. “Hey, we’re not going to sell you the Super-Ultra-Mega Big Mac, but you can buy our recipe book and make your own version.” Those recipes might even look complex on paper, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t consuming garbage.
There’s also a terrible egotistical aspect to this whole thing. Beck really can’t wait to hear what you’ve done with those Beck songs. I’m sure he’ll listen and humbly state that he would never in a million years thought of arranging his songs that way. Well done, anonymous musician. Beck is pleased. Wouldn’t it be better to have people write their own songs? I don’t understand what’s inherently exciting about people recording Beck songs. If he really meant this as a democratic process then surely he would have released the songs as actual sheet music that was available at a reasonable price. $34 is a lot of money. It’s more than double the price of a new CD and, unlike CDs, a used copy of this book will not decrease in value. You can even pick up a lovely signed copy for $50. Democracy should be cheaper than this.
In truth, Song Reader is nothing but a cleverly marketed product for a particular subset of Western consumers. It is guaranteed to sell out and it hasn’t even been released yet. My anger isn’t just about the fact that Beck is releasing a book of songs instead of an album. It’s also the fact that he’s doing it via McSweeney’s, a company whose philosophy exudes a kind of smug, post-modern sense of elitism. I’m sure Dave Eggers could pen an essay on why he thinks Fifty Shades Of Grey is both underrated and culturally important (thinkers like him train themselves to defend the most culturally abhorred product), but when it comes to the McSweeney’s customer, Eggers knows only a certain kind of artifact will satisfy. Expensive, limited, and decorated with comfort-inducing images and stylistic touches from days gone by, Beck’s Song Reader fits all the criteria. There’s nothing populist or democratic going on. This is just a well-executed marketing campaign.
For Beck fans who can’t read music and/or play an instrument, there’s nothing to be gained from this exercise other than perhaps a feeling that Beck is still relevant culturally. They may seek out cover versions but the whole thing will be a nine-day wonder. For people like me who dislike Beck and his antics, it’s irritating to see him being applauded for indulging in such risk-free exercises. To those who point out that by even talking about Song Reader I’m giving it attention, I would restate that it was guaranteed to sell out from the moment its existence was announced. To the people who say that since it has gotten people talking then it must be good, I’d say find the nearest pen and stick it in your eye. One, it’ll stop you from thinking such idiotic thoughts and two, it’ll give people lots to talk about next time they see you. I’m an optimist at heart though, and as such I always want to take something positive from whatever life throws at me.
In this instance I have found something to be very optimistic about; at least I won’t have to hear Song Reader.
(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)