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Beck's Sheet Music Album: Bourgeois PR Stunt or an Audition for Fans?

See also: Beck, Modern Guilt (Review) See also: Beck, The Information (Review)

Beck is the Tom Sawyer of modern music: he never grows up, and we love him even when he's annoying or faking his own death.

And now, like Sawyer's famous white fence episode, Beck is getting someone else to do his job for him. Mr. Hansen's latest album, titled Song Reader, set for release in December, is just sheet music and, as the pre-order page on literary site McSweeney's says, bringing the songs "to life depends on you."

There are a few ways to look at this. First, you'll still be able to torrent it, if you wanna download PDF's some jackass will likely scan and upload, but it's doubtful you'll get the same effect of viewing these original art prints by folks like Leanne Shapton, Jessica Hische and Marcel Dzama (who also did the work for Guero) on a computer screen as you would holding beautifully pressed physical copies in your hands.

With a foreword by Jody Rosen of The New York Times and an introduction by the musician himself, you'll be doing more reading than listening -- maybe this is Beck's version of a novel. Some song titles like "The Wolf Is On The Hill" or "We All Wear Cloaks" sound more like titles from Aesop Fables than they do song tracks. But despite how creative Song Reader sounds, you might be asking yourself, "Really? That's it?"

By some lazy estimation of mine, 90 percent of Beck's output lately has been production work, collaborating with everyone from Karen Elson,Tobacco, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Childish Gambino, Dwight Yoakam, Thurston Moore, and The Lonely Island to some work on video games, a Bat for Lashes duet for the Twilight soundtrack and a few tracks for Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. It's an understatement to say the man's been busy, so getting suckers to perform and record your songs for you isn't lazy -- it's genius.

Furthermore, I suspect this is more of an audition. The best covers listeners submit will get featured on McSweeney's website, but I feel confident Beck will choose the best artists, unknown or not, and call them in for work in the studio. Artists like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have done fan-related competitions before, but remixes and fan videos fade into white noise compared to helping write and record the album itself. Especially when it's with an artist that, by some accounts, has done more to influence the alt-rock uprising of the '90s than "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Can more music be released this way, please? Song Reader will more than likely combine the best collaborative and spontaneous efforts of anyone and everyone. Well, anyone that can read music, so admittedly not me. But I can't remember the last time I was this excited for an album to drop.

Part of me suspects (and hopes) that Beck will release his own take. He's not shy, but then again, he doesn't act like he needs the credit anymore. Even if he doesn't release studio versions of these songs, he might perform them live at a few of his upcoming shows, so there's that.

There are many weird ways to release an album -- you could stick it in an actual human skull, tie it to a balloon and launch it into space or release it on some obsolete format like cassette or 8-track. But that all seems gimmicky, a lust for some good PR in a time of doomed record sales. And besides, after you play your vinyl made of chocolateand it melts all over your record player, then what?

But with Song Reader, there's something there that's gonna outlast the novelty. This is why Beck is as important to us as he was in 1994 as he is today (kinda like the eternally youthful Tom Sawyer).

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Troy Farah is an independent journalist and documentary field producer. He has worked with VICE, Fusion, LA Weekly, Golf Digest, BNN, Tucson Weekly, and Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Troy Farah