FUV's New Dig: Beck's 'Song Reader'

by Carmel Holt | 09/01/2014 | 1:57am

FUV's New Dig album spotlight: Beck's 'Song Reader'

Various Artists performing songs by Beck
Song Reader
Capitol Records

It has been a good year for Beck fans. We were ecstatic to hear a set of beautiful, folky songs on his first proper album since 2008, Morning Phase, and are feeling even more so now, as we've received his second project of the year: a recorded version of Song Reader. But let’s rewind to 2012.

Four years after Beck's album, Modern Guilt, we were more than ready when we heard a new one was on the way. Then the most unexpected (and to some, perhaps, disappointing) thing happened: Beck released an “album” of sheet music. It was twenty songs complete with artwork, bound in a gorgeously-produced book titled, Song Reader. Published by McSweeney’s, it hearkened back to American songbooks of the early 20th century, and the pre-radio days when performing music at home was the only way to hear and share popular songs. This was how Beck wanted us to experience this new collection.

The concept had been brewing since the mid-Nineties when Beck first saw his songs transcribed for guitar and piano, and experienced how far-removed his music sounded from its original intent. Struck with the realization that the truest way to make his songs accessible to others was to return to this form, he decided to write a collection of songs and release them only as sheet music, for anyone to play, interpret, and enjoy. After Song Reader was released, hundreds around the globe did just that and shared their interpretations online, and last year, Beck staged three concerts of the material with all-star rosters of artists performing the songs. Now, a similarly-impressive array of artists have contributed recordings of their interpretations to the Song Reader album.

Hearing these songs is gratifying. It proves the success of Beck’s endeavor and, perhaps unsurprisingly, stands as testimony to the artistic genius of one Beck Hansen. First and foremost, we are reminded of Beck's skill as a writer, but also of his ease with the huge breadth of styles and genres we’ve seen displayed across his twelve albums. That range somehow shines even brighter here, as other artists show off his sonic personas: country, blues, folk, jazz, prog, and R&B (the only thing stylistically absent is hip hop).

It is also amazing how very “Beck” a song can sound in the hands of artists as distinctive as Norah Jones, Jack White, or David Johansen, especially given the fact that, unlike a typical cover song or tribute, there are no official recordings of what Beck thought the songs should sound like. And yes, that is by design. Yet, after his two decades of writing and recording, it is in this setting that it's most apparent that Beck has become an important and recognizable artistic voice – lyrically, melodically, and rhythmically – even when someone else sings (or reads) his songs.

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