Beck has been attached to a number of unconventional releases lately: There's his Childish Gambino collaborations, his single on Jack White's Third Man label, and the new songs packaged as a video game. Oh, and there's his new album, Beck Hansen's Song Reader, which is only being released as sheet music via publishing house McSweeney's. Writing but refusing to record an LP might seem weird for weird's sake, but in a recent interview with the Guardian, Beck explained that the 20-song collection developed as an art project intended to explore how format affects the way we listen to music.
"It was just an idea then to write some songs and put them in a book," Beck said. "When I first thought of the project there was no internet, there were no MP3s or file-sharing. But I collect vinyl and I've heard famous songs on their original masters and it's so different to an MP3 — in recent years I've been paying attention to how records are affected by it. Imagine if you were writing an article and someone was to take out half the words and they were going to put them in a really different font. That's what it's like. And it's a problem, I think."
The alt-pop veteran writes in the preface to Song Reader that, "These songs, they're here to be brought to life, or at least to remind us that, not so long ago, a song was only a piece of paper until it was played by someone."
Every song featured in the release, which comes in a hardcover carrying case, is paired with a full-color illustration, many done by Guero artist Marcel Dzama. Fine-drawn wolves, cartoons, and cityscapes decorate the book, which also features fictional advertisements in its back pages. Beck explained that his first memories of sheet music are more closely tied to the books themselves, rather than the musical notes printed inside.
"Sheet music wasn't something that I was conscious of growing up," he said. "But it was always on the periphery. I remember being at my aunt's house, the long summer afternoons looking for something to do, and finding a pile of them in the piano stool. But it was more about the artwork then, I couldn't play the songs, so it was about the artifact itself."
Having all the material for Song Reader laid out made the songwriting process more rigorous for the Odelay auteur. "This was a very disciplined process," he said. "It was like putting an X-ray or a magnifying glass on your own songwriting — it's right there, its weaknesses glaring." He continued, saying, "It was a struggle for me... Sometimes the lyrics were too clichéd, the sentiments were too shop-worn sometimes. But if the song was too clever or self-conscious it wouldn't have that universality." Stripping away at his work wasn't exactly new territory for the 42-year-old singer-songwriter, though. "I've done this before, with Sea Change. I put those songs under the microscope, took out lines that were too easy."
"I've learned to say more with less," he said. "You're still writing from the same frame, but there have been habits I've tried to break and ones I've tried to acquire."
Diversifying is one of the Los Angeles native's superpowers. At the start of his wildly eclectic two-decade-plus career — before he shuffled from proto-hipster poster boy to bleary-eyed Serge Gainsbourg-devotee — Beck had to tone down the sincerity and play up the ironic non sequiturs that first made him a star.
"When I started out it was the beautiful innocent chaos of throwing things at the wall," he recalled. "My songs were more personal, more emotional, but I had a lot of rejection at open mics and performance spaces on the Lower East Side in New York. I found people tuned out. So in the early '90s I wrote humorous songs, and the absurdity of them or something trenchant about them would go over."
Now, though, Beck wants to hear how fans will play his new songs. "I want to hear how far away they are from the original way they were written," he said. "I can play them live, but I'm more interested to hear what people do with them."
Staff members at the New Yorker have already taken a crack at "Old Shanghai," and if you sign up for the album's mailing list, you'll be able to hear recordings of the songs "by artists known and unknown." The sheet music will ship in December, and a limited number of copies signed by Beck are available for $50 apiece. Beck fans that aren't very musically inclined, don't worry: a new "standard format" album is on the way.