Song Reader is kind of a Beck album. It is also very much not a Beck album.
In 2012 Beck announced plans to release an album that same year. Much rejoicing was had, as Beck’s last album had been 2008’s Modern Guilt, and four years is always too long to wait for new music from Beck. Somewhat less rejoicing was had when it became clear that we would have to wait a little longer to actually hear a new album from Beck. Rather than release a CD, or an MP3, or a vinyl, or a mini-disk, Beck released a book of sheet music called Song Reader, comprising twenty songs that you could read. At once an interesting experiment and a fun crushing exercise, the book allowed you to imagine what the album would have sounded like if he had bothered to record it. Then he asked you to record it and put it on his website. For free.
Once Beck had had his cake, eaten it, regurgitated it, and then eaten it a second time, he got a bunch of his famous mates to record the songs for him. That’s what we have here – a compilation of the twenty songs from the Song Reader book recorded by the likes of Jack White, Fun., Norah Jones, Laura Marling, Jack Black, Jarvis Cocker, and many others. Only one song on the album is performed by Beck himself, making this an album entirely written by Beck, but handed to others for interpretation.
It is an interesting concept, even if it is only a slight tweak on the now traditional ‘get famous people to all cover one other famous person’ compilation that gets trotted out every time a legend dies or reaches fifty years of age. The tone is set by Moses Sumney, whose airy folk rendition of Title of This Song is dreamy and drifting. Fun. also follow this breezy pattern, as do Norah Jones and Bob Forrest, and then you are at track eight and you realise that nearly half the album has just floated by, almost completely innocuously. Even the usually brilliantly unhinged Jack White is having one of his quiet moments on I’m Down. It makes the album seem a little bit too much of a dirge for the exhilaratingly genre-shifter that is Beck.
It’s not all bad news, and there are absolutely some highlights. Beck’s channeling of The Beatles for Heaven’s Ladder is genuinely brilliant, The Wolf is On the Hill by Tweedy is a wonderfully understated slice of psych-folk, and hearing Jarvis Cocker summon up his inner Nick Cave on Eyes That Say I Love You makes for a delightfully moody experience. However, for every stroke of genius is a disappointment. Laura Marling does what she always does on Sorry, Sparks make an incredibly out of place and ill thought out appearance, and Jack Black appears to be doing an impression of a drunk, metal loving uncle at a wedding sing-a-long of Tom Waits, which is actually embarrassing.
If this sounds like the usual hit and miss that every compilation delivers, that’s because it is. Although on this release there is an added layer of disappointment. Since the original version of the songs appear only in writing, we have basically nothing to compare these version to – except of course, those of us who can read music. At no point can you think ‘Oh, that’s an interesting interpretation of that song,’ or, ‘I wouldn’t have expected that kind of rendition,’ because this is the only song we are presented with. In that respect they aren’t really covers, and yet the individual artists seems as though they never had enough creative control to really let loose with the material. Everybody sounds like either a watered down version of themselves, or a watered down version of Beck. The only truly impressive thing on the record is that Beck manages to sound like neither of these things.