I feel like Beck generally falls somewhere between two extremes as of late: an artist with two feet planted firmly on terra firma, a consummate professional and critical darling; and someone with a body of lyrical content and late-career projects that have grown increasingly more abstract and high-minded as he’s abandoned the old irreverent slacker persona in favor of sci-fi concept albums and funky memento moris. So I was kind of awed by the scope of Song Reader when I first heard about it, and how it recalled this discussion about “the perfect album” at the end of The Information between Dave Eggers (who produced the Song Reader book) and Spike Jonze:
“I picture like a… like an illuminated manuscript, you know?… They hand-do them… in record form. And you’d have to have them hand-done each time… Like, depending, like change depending on what mood you’re in… or depending on like when you assume from a different age, they’ll mean something different.”
Because as unassuming as it sounds on paper — a collection of sheet music written by Beck, which could be played and reinterpreted at home by fans — an interesting subtlety about the project is that it also posits a pretty significant ulterior motive: becoming a work of art that could outlive, possibly even transcend, its creator.
Song Reader is most compelling as one of Beck’s pet projects, because its goal (as espoused by Beck) is to encourage participants to deconstruct and reinterpret its notes and lyrics with little regards to the boundaries put upon most popular music. “There are no rules in reinterpretation,” concludes his McSweeney’s interview/hype-up for the book release. In other interviews, he speaks of ancient reconstructed instruments echoing popular tunes throughout the eons, and likens it optimistically to “Sweet Leilani,” the Bing Crosby composition that found a symbolic immortality through private performances that far outlived the lifespan of the original recording:
Fifty-four million homes singing “Sweet Leilani” in 1937 would have felt like some weird convergence. That time is long gone, but the idea of it makes one wonder where that impulse went. As for these songs, they’re here to be brought to life — or at least to remind us that, not so long ago, a song was only a piece of paper until it was played by someone. Anyone. Even you.
The idealistic result of this project is the same one described at the end of “Exoskeleton”: a record whose inherent devices allow it to be revisited and revised endlessly; a record that might, through constant reinterpretation, over time, realize its own intrinsic value — its inextricable Beckness — in the canon of American music; a kind of secular immortality. You know, like a great big statue that shoots flames and screams REMEMBER ME.
Regarding Warby Parker Presents Beck Song Reader, it may serve as the control group for how exactly not to rework this material. Between the abundance of cross-promotion that funds it and the painful, meandering homogeneity on display between these collaborators, listening to Song Reader feels a little like being trapped in musical purgatory.
As stated in Anne Stone’s “Self-Reflexive Songs and Their Readers in the Late 14th Century”: .”..the fiction of orality is integral to the audience’s perception of the song… when the audience reads a poem or song rather than hearing it, its perception of author and poetic speaker changes significantly. The poetic speaker is no longer embodied in the performer, and so becomes abstract, residing in the imagination of the audience.” The real value of Song Reader (the printed text) is that it possessed no aural reference for prospective performers, no “correct version,” only notation. That these pieces might eventually find a fitting form to naturally transition them into the annals of American popular music — a Hank Williams or a Flamingos to give them life and longevity — was the original intent of the book.
Song Reader, the record, is quite the opposite, in fact, of anything resembling a transcendent body of work. It is Beck’s music, sure, but the mediocrity of its execution on this record so divorces it from his name that it might as well have sprung up spontaneously like sickly organic matter grown from some inanimate corporate machine. It is feckless. It is almost totally Beckless. It is the sound of a music industry’s neural system cannibalizing itself.
Person 2: I don’t like it when they change. It frightens me.
Person 1: You want them to stay the same more?
Person 2: It makes me feel like someone’s pushing me from below. Or trying to put me, turn me over, and put me down. That’s what it makes me feel like when they change.
From Jack White’s “I’m Down,” which apes every other White Stripes song, to Norah Jones’ “Just Noise” and Laura Marling’s “Sorry,” which sound too much like each other, to the Tom Waits-aping “Rough On Rats” and the completely non-sequitur “We All Wear Cloaks” from Jack Black, Song Reader plays like the alternative “indie” scene being asked to parody itself. Nothing here sounds much like Beck or like the artists who are covering Beck. It is a maelstrom of self-aware, timid transpositions and pop soundalikes, all confusingly subsumed into the commercial mass that is Warby Parker-via-Wes Anderson-via-McSweeney’s-via who knows what else. It is Beck writing Beck songs, played by artists who try to play Beck playing Beck, but sound like themselves interpreting someone else, or vice versa. Even when Beck plays his own song, “Heaven’s Ladder,” he winds up sounding like Ram-era Paul McCartney (and guess which song?).
This isn’t to say there aren’t a few decent songs on the record — Swamp Dogg’s “America, Here’s My Boy” and Marc Ribot’s “The Last Polka” sound like all the best moments of Mutations condensed into a bleak ballad and a quirky trad-jazz guitar piece, respectively. But these two only serve to highlight how similar every other song on the record sounds in comparison, how many melded personalities have been fused together to block anything from getting through. This is, to make a terrible pun, a clusterBeck of maligned pop dopplegangery. My head hurts.
Song Reader, the book, is a really truly fascinating project, and while it remains to be seen how its high-minded aims will fare in the future, it’s at least commendable in its wanton idealism, a quality that is usually quashed by this point in an artist’s career. Song Reader, the record, is a really truly disappointing work of corporate hyperbranding and interbreeding, a fake Beck, taken from a fake book, a network of “signs within signs” that reflect neither author nor participant, a reflection of a reflection that distorts and betrays its source. Fortunately, when it finishes playing you can delete it from your hard drive and never listen to it again. Sheet music lives on!