BRIAN BOYDon music. Beck's new print-only album is old school and then some

Becks’s new album is officially called Song Reader, but perhaps it should be retitled The Do It Yourself Album. Not available on vinyl, CD or MP3, Song Reader is 20 songs long but only exists as sheet music. In other words, you have to play it yourself.

It’s a sort of communitarian vibe, or as Beck himself has it: “These songs are meant to be pulled apart and reshaped. The idea of them being played by choirs, brass bands, string ensembles – anything outside of traditional rock-band constructs – is interesting. I think some of the best covers will be those that reimagine the chord structure, take liberties with the melodies, the phrasing, even the lyrics themselves.”

Sheet music is pop’s primordial past. A total anachronism in today’s digital age, the format speaks of Victorian music halls and front parlours, where songs would be passed around on pieces of paper.

Beck got the idea for a sheet music release early in his career, when a publisher sent him a sheet music version of one of his first releases. There was something about seeing his grandiose musical ideas reduced to notation that shocked him: how could one possibly reduce music to dots on a page? But he imagined reversing that process one day.

Around the same time, he heard a story about a Bing Crosby song called Sweet Leilani, which back in 1937 had sheet music sales of around 55 million copies, such was its popularity and the desire of people to play it themselves.

The beauty of Beck’s “album” is that it highlights how learning to play a song yourself is something very special. In a trashy, lip-synch pop world, the sheet music reconnects to an almost forgotten time when performance superseded presentation.

Already YouTube and assorted sites are full of people’s own versions of the tracks from Song Reader, and Beck himself will eventually record his own version for an orthodox CD/MP3 release. By no means a novelty release, Song Reader is perhaps an attempt to reposition popular music away from its current MTV/American Idol/ringtone-infested culture.

“I wondered if there was a way to explore that world that would be more than an exercise in nostalgia” says Beck. “A way to represent how people felt about music back then – and to speak to what was left in our nature of that instinct to play popular music ourselves.”

What strikes is the many different ways people are going about the task (and the uptake on these songs is huge so far). While some stay rigidly faithful to the sheet music notation, others embellish and some reduce it just down to vocals. From classical to acoustic to dubstep, the whole music world seems to be having a go at the songs on Song Reader.

Is the same impulse to create music that was there in 1937, when the sheet music to Sweet Leilani sold 55 million copies, still there? As Beck has it: “These songs are here to be brought to be life – and 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.

Song Reader is published by Faber and Faber

Mixed bag

The Justice Collective’s Hillsborough song. Good song, even better cause.

Robbie Williams: “I want to seal my place in pop history”. Robbie, have you ever seen that video of you singing Barry Manilow’s Could It Be Magic?

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