Over the years, Beck — the poster child of music in the 21st century, who can dance like James Brown, sample like a Beastie Boy, sing like a gospel choir, and play the kalimba — has attracted and pursued an unsurprisingly surprising set of collaborations: He's dueted with Charlotte Gainsbourg, produced an album for Thurston Moore, growled with Jack White, and tropicaliaed with Seu Jorge. Well, you can now add Dave Eggers and his San Francisco-based publishing house McSweeney's to the list. For the past eight years, Beck and Eggers have been working on Beck's new record, which, as you might have guessed, isn't really a record. It's a book.
Song Reader is a collection of sheet music written by Beck, but never recorded or performed by Beck — not in a CD that comes with the book, not in carefully-spaced singles released online, and not in a forthcoming international tour. Those who want to hear the album can be found performing it in dozens of videos that have emerged online since the book came out on December 11 (some of which can be found at the book's site: SongReader.net). The pages of Song Reader are beautifully-illustrated by dozens of visual artists (chosen by McSweeney's), the key signatures are imaginatively annotated (the song "Do We? We Do" is to be played "rhetorically"), the cover is gorgeous and typographically literate, and the songs are, well, real songs. To my ear they seem to have more in common with the tracks on Sea Change than on Guero, but that might also have to do with the constraints of the medium (my voice and guitar), and the fact that a Beck-level 21st-century YouTube star hasn't yet emerged to pastiche together an Odelay-fashioned orchestration. In Song Reader's introduction, Jody Rosen calls the meme's potential "musical amateurs feeling their oats, harnessing new technologies to reclaim pop music from pop stars. We have returned to the parlor room with the laptop camera taking the place of the upright piano."
Song Reader is impressive — as a musical artifact, as a book, and as an idea. And it's a good thing, because Beck and McSweeney's have been working on it since 2004, when Beck first approached them.
"Not every publisher is willing to spend eight years figuring out a project," said Jordan Bass, McSweeney's managing editor. "An incredible amount of work went into it, and a lot just in talking over the concept." Ironically, the throw-back Song Reader attempts to break "new" ground — no contemporary artist has really done anything like it before. Bass said his tenure at McSweeney's, which began in 2005, has been peppered with periods of research and development, pawing through disintegrating pages of sheet music in used bookstores. "The idea would sort of percolate for a couple months, and then kind of fade away, and then come back."
Though this was its first foray into sheet music, McSweeney's has a long history of publishing books related to music. One of its earliest publications was Nick Hornby's Songbook in 2002 — a kind of memoir with a mix CD as a table of contents. The publishing house's yearly music issue of its arts and culture magazine, The Believer, also comes with a CD of significant music for the year. And in September, McSweeney's released David Byrne's How Music Works, which The New York Times called "a faux-naieve guidebook for the musically illiterate pop-music player and fan."
Bass called the 2012 publications of both Beck's and Byrne's books a "funny consonance." McSweeney's hadn't lined the releases up intentionally; they just both happened to come to fruition at the same time. But Bass also noted the thematic similarities between the two projects, and a connection to McSweeney's' understanding of books as a medium to change the way we listen to music.
"Both Beck and Byrne were interested in the possibility of a book because they wanted to take a prolonged look at their subject," Bass said. "It seems a bit harder to do that in an album. A book requires sustained engagement, which is what they were looking for." He added, "The audience is grateful for being engaged, too, if you've given them something worthwhile."
So if the songs in Song Reader are meant to be performed, not just read, which is an entirely different level of engagement, how does mere text move people to sing? In Song Reader, you will not find tracks like "Devils Haircut" — the type that today would have gone viral instead of being picked up by MTV as it was in 1996. That style of music is the realm of late-20th century pop, as Beck writes in Song Reader's preface: "By then, recorded music was no longer just the document of a performance — it was a composite of style, hooks, and production techniques, an extension of a popular personality's image within a current sound."
Those songs are in line with Beck's fuzzy synth and cool, casual intonation in a way that he hopes Song Reader's music never will be. "I struggled against my own writing instincts — where was the line between the simplistic and the universal, the cliché and the enduring?" Beck continued: "Still, I have little idea whether any of these songs managed to find that line. In the right hands, maybe they'll come a little closer to it."
The subject of the corporatization of art is treated in some of the songs themselves. "Don't Pretend That Your Heart isn't Hard" includes the line when you turn Tin Pan Alley into a boulevard, then go whistling past a graveyard. Song Reader is a lot of things, but corporate isn't one of them. It's meant to be a collaboration between two popular artists — one a rock star, the other an independent book publisher — and whoever chooses to bring the songs to life.
"We work in kind of a funny way," Bass said of McSweeney's. "We're always trying new things out, and a lot of the time when we hit on something that works, we'll have to catch our breath before figuring out the next move. I think we're stumbling around just as much as anybody, but we're in a fortunate position to have an audience willing to follow us around."