Wallace Wylie

Beck – Song Reader (Faber/McSweeney’s) THE BAD REVIEW

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By Wallace Wylie

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.

Related posts: Beck – Song Reader (Faber/McSweeney’s) (THE GOOD REVIEW)

9 Responses to Beck – Song Reader (Faber/McSweeney’s) THE BAD REVIEW

  1. chris December 4, 2012 at 10:17 am

    I reckon he’ll record it anyway – it’s the next marketing phase of the product. Probably already has recorded it, I’d wager. Like the Radiohead release it’ll get a ‘proper’ (listenable to) release in six months, thus maximizing sales figures for Interscope or whichever major he’s currently with. Of course I could also be wrong, but I doubt it. Can’t say I particularly blame anyone for this – it’s just the way business goes on in our capitalist society. Making little loopholes to grow money through by tricking the gullible consumer – i.e. business as usual.
    I’d like the sheet music and a copy of the recorded album but I’d say my interest in the actual listen-to-able album (if it ever does come out) will only exist as a result of all this sheet music palaver. Without it, I too probably wouldn’t go to the trouble of getting the cd, for what it’s worth.

  2. Chris December 4, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    I do embrace this enterprise though – at least it makes a point about encouraging people to decipher the music rather can blindly consuming it again and the fact that it’s beautifully packaged is hardly a bad thing in my book. I don’t get that many new cd’s or downloads but as I mentioned above, this trick (if it is such) will have ensnared me. And Mutations was brilliant.
    Graphic scores, interesting idea for everyone still determined not to try the universal lingo. But if that’s the case, the scores as they are can be treated as such by those people too.

  3. Charley Stone December 4, 2012 at 11:18 pm

    Until I realised it was gonna be one of those expensive limited editions, I was all for this idea. In principle, I thought it was brilliant. But then I realised I wouldn’t be buying it anyway, because, as you say, Beck’s “songs” aren’t very interesting in themselves.

    Didn’t Deerhoof do this a few years ago, anyway? I mean, they put out the notation of one of their songs prior to releasing the actual song. It was free. Ah, yeah, here’s a link: http://creativecommons.org/weblog/entry/8509

  4. Daniel December 5, 2012 at 3:04 am

    1) I dispute the premise that Beck’s best songs are reliant on recording method than composition or performance. “Putting It Down” is killer. Most of Sea Change is glossy and dull. Stereopathetic Soul Manure is/was funny without any minstrel overtones. I know Wallace and I don’t see eye-to-eye on Midnight Vultures, but in order to do any style of music well, one does have to earnestly enjoy it.

    2) I don’t think Beck is culturally irrelevant. Relevance is relative. He’s probably more culturally relevant than say Scott Walker. I enjoy Scott Walker more, but his new record is confrontational in a puerile manner. The driving sense here is a hatred for the audience this appeals to more than the piece of work.

    3) This is a release which fetishizes sheet music and books. Are there two more battered mediums? When only 5% of the US is musically literate, and fewer than that are buying books, is this really worth crusading against? The exclusive audience for this likely no larger or smaller than that of ¾ of Throbbing Gristle recording a cover album of Desert Shore (retail $33.83 stateside).

  5. Molite December 8, 2012 at 1:04 am

    As a musician and a song writer that really likes Becks music I think this is awesome. A chance to record a version of this guys music without being influenced by an original.

    I can’t wait my copy is getting here Monday

    I don’t know if the guy who wrote this article actually plays music or is just a critic. He is so hung up on the image, bothered by the marketing or other details.

    I like beck’s music could care less about any of the other stuff this critic is crying about it this review

  6. Jed December 11, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    I think you’re somewhat overestimating the cachet of Beck at this point, possibly

  7. T Mac January 13, 2013 at 4:49 am

    This guy’s bitter. I’m sure it has nothing to do with him being a musician no one’s ever heard of.

  8. Erik January 16, 2013 at 10:33 am

    while I’m actually in agreement with you about the overall quality of becks songwriting in general and on this release in particular (so far all of the songs I’ve heard have been astoundingly average or even amateur, at best), I disagree with you about the originality of the concept. sure there is sheet music for most other releases. but there hasn’t been a situation where there wasn’t recordings of the sheet music to try to copy. at least not in the last hundred years. and that’s where I feel there is some genuine genius to this concept. my take on it is that these days we’re living more and more in a culture where people actively strive to imitate the most beloved version of a song ( Me and Bobby McGee and Respect come immediately to mind) rather then molding the song and making it their own (again, Joplins version of McGee and Franklins version of Respect come to mind). so this Beck release is a wonderful concept because it encourages, or even forces the interpreter to add a piece of themselves to the songs creation. and in my opinion that is an admirable endeavor. unfortunately, that’s all the more reason why I think it’s a shame that the pieces, when played, are revealed to be such simplistic and drab songs. so my review is ‘a great concept, poorly executed’.

  9. Dave January 24, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    Hey Wallace. Have you worked out any of the songs yourself, for considered judgement? No? Thought not.

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