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Why Beck Didn't Record His New Album

Why did the dada of postmodern rock return from a general radio silence with such a precious-looking thing, a record that looks like it came out in 1923? Listen, and speculate.
January 7, 2013, 8:24pm

Instead of recording his new album, Beck Hansen put his new songs on paper only, leaving us to surf YouTube to hear it, giving us free license to play around with his notation too. Strange, in part because as Beck admits, he doesn't really read music in the first place. Why did the dada of postmodern rock return from a general radio silence with such a precious-looking thing, a record that looks like it came out in 1923? Song Reader, as it sounds in its first full-length recording, by The Portland Cello Project, and possible answers to that question, below.

It may not a bad way to sell records. It was Bing Crosby--whose sheet music at one point reportedly sold to almost half the country's population--who spurred Beck on in his quest to pay homage to the good old days before recordings were popular. (The Library of Congress, by the way, has a pretty impressive collection of early century sheet music.) Beck hasn't made a splash in years, and making an album that's as much about the music as about the meme is as good a way as any to draw some attention to his back catalog and burnish his YouTube cred (and licensing profit), not to mention make sly commentary about the tumult in the music industry (record sales now hover around $7 billion per year, down from $14 billion in 1999, reports David Byrne in his new book about music, also published by McSweeney's). And then there's the million dollar question: how's Beck himself going to interpret his new stuff? He hasn't locked in to any tour dates yet, but better set up the Google Alerts now just in case.

It just sounds better this way. "I've personally reached the point where the sound of MP3s are so uncompelling, because so much is lost in translation," is how Beck recently described our current situation to Pitchfork's Ryan Dombal. "For years, people said the reduction in information on an MP3 was supposedly not really detectable, but I've compared them to CDs, and MP3s do sound a lot worse. If I have a choice, I always try to get the CD-- and obviously the vinyl sounds a lot better than that. I still record and mix everything to tape, and I think it makes a difference. But by the time it gets reduced down to an MP3, it's like you've shaved off all the nuance. The first thing that gets thrown out is the air that was in the room of whatever instrument or musician that was being recorded-- that negative space in a song that takes the most information to capture." Just make sure your piano's in tune.


It's easier. It's not that Beck's lazy--he's been producing music lately for everyone from Karen Elson to Childish Gambino to video games to Philip Glass (get a load of that 20-minute remix he did). And in fact, making the album without recording it might even be harder: if you're asking people to play your album for you, and you haven't put out a new record in a few years, you'd better give them something really good. But after years of trying to perfect the songs, Beck stowed some of his obsessiveness to get this thing out--after all, ultimately it's not really about what he thinks it sounds like.

It's democratic and spiritual and cyberpunk. Big musicians putting their music back into the hands of the audience, psychically and literally, doesn't happen often. "If I had recorded these songs and released them, then there's this idea of a definitive version that you build off of," Beck says. "Whereas that song that people bought on sheet music might have 15 different versions: a polka version, a jazz version, dixieland, swing, a crooner version. It was very fluid. And when you have to find someone who can play or learn to play a song yourself, it becomes a part of you in a different way than listening to a record." It's as if Beck's quoting technology's Maker motto, but for music (if you can't open the thing, you don't really own it).

Allowing the person playing the music so much freedom is actually a very old-fashioned idea. Pre-Beethoven, composers regularly left stylistic decisions (slurs, dynamics, accents, etc.) up to the performer and, going even further back, often didn't even specify which instruments would play which parts. It was assumed that if you could read the music, you would just know what to do to make it sound good. (See the remix projects at Indaba for a nice example of artists giving the reigns to fans.)

Beck spoke to John Schaffer about the history of sheet music, from their now-bizarre ads to the lost practice of notation itself, then listened as Stephin Merritt, modern-day songbooker, performed a version of "Old Shanghai" with toy piano and tambourine.

It's a statement about ownership and innovation. What better way to instigate another discussion about America's copyright regime than to ask people to consider how music comes into being these days, who owns it, and what can be done with it, even when, especially when, it's just on paper? It was during the song book era of Bing Crosby that ASCAP and a whole musical copyright regime came into existence, ostensibly protecting the work of composers well before recordings became popular, giving companies more control over artists, and putting the first limits on a musical culture built on sharing. Now we live in the age of SOPA and YouTube's copyright bots. (Expect some interesting new wrangling this year, as a 35 year old revision to copyright law enables artists who recorded music in 1978 to begin to reclaim their copyrights from the publishing companies that own them.) Beck misses the old days, when it was about the music. "The culture was closer to its folk traditions, to the time of songs being passed down," he writes in his preface. "The music felt like it could belong to almost anybody."

Beck isn't a stranger to the legal trenches of music ownership; while much of 1996's Odelay revolved around samples and references, when the anonymous group Illegal Art made an album entirely out of Beck samples in 1998, Beck's record company attempted to sue the group (they couldn't identify anyone to sue). "Who owns the images and sounds that are all around us?" Steven Shaviro asked at the time. "What does it mean to own one, anyway? What are the implications of reproducing one? …Deconstructing Beck asks a simple question: Why should the freedom to create by appropriation, the major form creativity takes today, be denied to those who are unable to pay enormous royalty fees?" By copyright law, anyone can freely perform and record their own original interpretations of Song Reader (that is, at least until YouTube's overzealous copyright bots make a mistake). But to get it, you still have to buy it from McSweeney's.

You have to buy it (well, sort of). The physical album is now practically a design object, and a book (published by McSweeney's) goes the extra step, making it something you can leaf through, indulging the romantics who long for the days before the mp3, giving your cocktail party something cool to look at (again, McSweeney's), and ensuring that people will actually buy the thing as opposed to stealing it online. Even for those who don't read sheet music, it's a beauty. Beck has included several pages of fake advertisements, pun-heavy ‘bonus’ tunes pseudonymously penned by Beck himself, and little in-jokes--all references to the scores of Tin Pan Alley. There's also awesome illustrations (Leanne Shapton, Marcel Dzama and others) and essays by Beck and Jody Rosen. Of course you can download the thing as a PDF on the torrents, but that wouldn't be nearly as satisfying as holding it (and, perhaps even putting it on your upright and playing a few tunes).

It's (like a) novel. Between the fantasy world of the book, the utter disappearance of Beck's voice, and the prominence of the lyrics, Song Reader gives fans new way to interpret his meanings, much the way novelists hope to do in their work, by removing "Beck" from the equation. "After the 60s, recorded music became something bigger than the song, it was almost like the song was irrelevant, like it became a vehicle for a personality or a sound or a style," he says. If the album like the novel exists to "shake us profoundly," as critic James Wood argues, we ought to approach it not just as a listener but as the author, "which is [about] making aesthetic judgments."

But that presents the other irony of the master ironist's new bookapart of course from his apparent inability to read sheet music: in trying to detach the aura of the "recording artist" from the work itself and bring more of the audience's imagination back in, Beck is actually drawing more attention to himself. Better yet, he's getting lots of people on YouTube to do it for him.

Top photo by Anna Webber