Beck is now more fully offering information on his upcoming album as sheet music, which he first announced several months ago. Beck Hansen’s Song Reader box set was always set to include a foreword by Beck himself, and now the alt-pop icon’s 1,500-word preface is available in full over at the New Yorker. Beck has also e-mailed his listserv subscribers with a link to download the sheet music for his new song “Old Shanghai,” and you can watch a New Yorker cartoonist and staff rendition below.
Beck traces the genesis of Song Reader, which arrives December 7 via McSweeney’s, to the mid ’90s, when he received a piano and guitar-chord book based on one of his albums and saw what a strange fit it was for his music. “Reversing the process and putting together a collection of songs in book form seemed more natural,” he writes, adding, “it would be an album that could only be heard by playing the songs.” Later he learned about a 1937 Bing Crosby song that had sold an estimated 54 million sheet-music copies.
To Beck, learning to play a song is something special in its own right, and the difference between that culture of home music and modern pop music that embodies hooks, persona, and of-the-moment production caused him to question “what a song is supposed to do, and how its purpose has altered.” He also cites “Lovesick Blues” and “I Only Have Eyes for You” as examples of classic songs that came to life in the hands of particular performers (Hank Williams and the Flamingos, respectively — though, Beck, too, turned in a lovely cover of the latter in April). He asks: “What is it about a song that lets you sing it around a campfire, or play it at a wedding?”
That’s all well and good, but Beck also acknowledges that most of us might be interested in his music without wanting to sit down and puzzle them out. To that end, he has emphasized the box set as a physical entity worth owning in its own right, extending a process many musicians have already struggled with through vinyl, cassette, or other tangible release formats (see: Jack White’s balloons; Flaming Lips’ blood). “We’ve attempted to make a book that’s able to stand alone as an object, aside from the music,” he writes.
As performed by the New Yorker band, “Old Shanghai” does have a backward-looking, lost-generation feel about it — right down to the title, which brings to mind a Tom Waits barroom ballad (or the well-marinated standards that might’ve influenced him). “Think of me while you’re away,” the narrator pleads, between images of moons rising, “old men smoking,” and “junk boats floating.” The sheet music calls for a “slow swing,” with piano, ukulele, brass, and saxophone; the magazine’s crew fills out the arrangement with violin and more.
Curiously, the sheet music actually ends with another song, turned on its side (“A song so good it’ll turn you sideways,” reads the vintage-style billing). The title of this one: “There’s a Sarcophagus in Egypt With Your Name on It.” With Song Reader, locales all around the world are, it appears, where it’s at. Maybe the cartoonists and editorial staff at another magazine can perform this one? Ball’s in your court, the Economist.