The 20 new tracks on Beck Hansen’s Song Reader clock in at a whopping 108…pages. Of sheet music. Consider it an extremely unenhanced CD: an entire album written, produced, and distributed in the pop song’s sole mode of existence prior to the recording age. Each slim booklet includes tune and lyrics in standard musical notation, plus instrumentation, performance tips, ads for other songs, and all the dazzling visuals of a 19th-century printing press (now with two different colors!). With their signature tiny-font anachronistic flair, McSweeney’s has published Song Reader as a hardcover pseudo-artifact, something that reads like speculative fiction about Gay Nineties America crossfaded with one of the exquisitely detailed graphic novels of Chris Ware—the entire project so period-authentic that a song called “Saint Dude” looks plucked from a dusty estate sale. Since this is the first album in four years from music’s onetime game changer, we placed a call on our new transcontinental telephone to see just how far off the grid Beck has gone.
SO, SHEET MUSIC. HOW? WHY?
When I was releasing Odelay, the publisher sent me the sheet music for the album that they were going to sell in music stores, just for me to sign off on it. That album was mostly just aggregations of sound and noise. It wasn’t something that worked on, like, piano. I remember thinking, They transcribed a guitar squeal where I was hitting a trash can. So it seemed like a shame that someone might buy that book and try to play it. I thought, What if I just made the book first and the album later?
ODELAY CAME OUT IN 1996. WHY DID IT TAKE SO LONG?
I got cold feet. I realized someone’s gonna spend a couple of hours learning one of these songs—what if it’s not good? What if it’s a waste of time? It took a lot of work to simplify the songs, to walk the line between that kind of transcendent simplicity and just banality, to write the kind of thing that you could strum around a campfire.
NOW THAT EVERYONE FROM RADIOHEAD TO THE BLACK EYED PEAS IS TRYING TO OUT-NEXT-LEVEL EACH OTHER, WAS JUMPING BACK A WHOLE CENTURY SOME KIND OF CONCEPTUAL POWER MOVE?
I know some people will think, ‘Oh, this is some quaint, pastiche nostalgia trip that he went on.’ But what I was trying to do was really enter into that world of the early American songbook, use the conventions of it, but maybe reach at something more human. Back then, you had to do a certain amount of work to hear a new song. What happens when somebody plays it, inhabits it physically? How is that different from listening to it?
And when I started investigating old sheet music, I was struck by all the jarring life there is in it—so much humor and novelty and weirdness, every square-inch crammed with an ad for another song they’re selling with these blinding proclamations. “The greatest song ever written! A triumph across all areas of popular culture!” And the song itself is, like, “Papa, Please Buy Me an Airship.” A Song for All Times! There’s something there that I recognize in us now. And there’s an innocence to it, to the fact that these proclamations probably worked.
BEFORE YOU HEAR IT, “PAPA, PLEASE BUY ME AN AIRSHIP” COULD VERY WELL BE THE BEST FUCKING SONG IN HUMAN HISTORY.
Exactly. It’s that moment of anticipation. For me, that was the beauty of taking three buses to the record store on Saturday, after I’d been saving for three months to buy the new Sonic Youth record that my world would hinge on for the next three months. Just looking at that record on the ride home—the anticipation of what it might sound like. It was often better than the music itself. With this book, some of these songs might only exist on paper. And in a way, maybe that conceptual element of what the song could be is better than what any of the songs actually are.
I XEROXED ONE OF THE SONGS FROM A PRE-RELEASE SONG READER, HANDED OUT COPIES TO FRIENDS AT A GIG, WHO THEN PLAYED IT ONSTAGE. HAVE I BOOTLEGGED YOUR ALBUM? LEAKED IT? WHO ARE YOU GOING TO SUE?
I guess that would count as an album leak. I don’t know what to do about that. I’m definitely not going to sue anyone.