Though Beck took an unprecedented 6-year break between his last two proper studio albums, 2008’s Modern Guilty and 2014’s Morning Phase, he kept busy in the interim. To wit: he’s released a string of non-album singles including a response to an insult from the Fiery Furnaces’ Matthew Friedberger in what’s probably been the funniest music beef to date, produced albums for Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and Charlotte Gainsbourg, remixed Philip Glass, and continued covering albums in their entirety as part of the Record Club project. And in 2012, he revealed his newest album, Song Reader…except it wasn’t very much an album at all. It was just sheet music, and he invited people to interpret it however they saw fit. Song Reader: Twenty Songs by Beck compiles that.
Admittedly, when I first heard of Song Reader, I thought it might be the most pretentious undertaking I’ve ever heard; not to mention lazy; music that’s read instead of heard. But when I realized the initiative opened doors to budding Youtube and Soundcloud artists, I decided against that. After all, Beck was a loser before he dropped “Loser,” and it seemed like he was giving back to a community that gave so much to him in the first place.
Unfortunately, Song Reader: Twenty Songs by Beck is a wasted opportunity in two ways. Firstly, most of these artists are big names, ranging from beloved garage rocker Jack White to School of Rocker Jack Black, artists like Sparks and New York Dolls’ David Johansen who started in the ’70s to fun. who dominated the radio in the (early) 2010s. Though it definitely would have sold less, it ultimately would have been infinitely more interesting to have twenty songs done by people no one has ever heard of. (Though I should state somewhere that all the proceeds were donated to 826 National, a nonprofit organization whose goal is help “under-resourced students, ages 6-18, with opportunities to explore their creativity and improve their writing skills.”)
Secondly, and more importantly, it’s just not very good. At its best, Song Reader is mildly tuneful, marginally pleasant. Moses Sumney employs wordless backing vocals that Beck has been a fan of since Sea Change and a cute, clicking percussion on opener “Title Of This Song”; the waltz-time arrangement of fun.’s “Please Leave a Light On When You Go” is light-hearted and more subtle than I’ve ever heard from the band; Norah Jones and Laura Marling get off pleasant choruses on “Just Noise” and “Sorry” respectively; Eleanor Friedberger gets off a nice bridge on “Old Shanghai”; there’s a nice guitar line on “Heaven’s Ladder” (the only song that Beck himself contributes) and a nice keyboard line on Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker’s “Eyes That Say ‘I Love You'” (courtesy of Brian Eno’s brother, Roger Eno). The best surprise is Jack Black’s “We All Wear Cloaks”, that begins like a Tom Waits cabaret and climaxes with Jack Black launching his voice into the stratosphere, made better by the baritone chanting all around him.
But again, marginal. “Title Of This Song” seems to go on for forever; fun.’s vocalist Jack Antonoff is apparently incapable of anything that’s not over-the-top vocal bombast; the verses of “Heaven’s Ladder” are annoyingly phrased in their staccato; there’s a squishy sound throughout “Eyes That Say ‘I Love You'” that makes the song damn near unlistenable (Brian Eno would never have okayed something like that). Perhaps the biggest disappointment is from Jack White, who does the country-inflected romp that shows his limitation as a songwriter when not working on self-imposed limitations; the drum sound is flat (and haters, say what you want, but Meg White would never have been responsible for that) and the bass stomp leading into the choruses grate.
And Beck, who was once known for proving that hip-hop, blues rock and folk could work on the same album – sometimes on the same song – is content to just collect twenty songs of more or less the same style, other than a couple of songs that sound like they could’ve appeared on the soundtrack of a kids’ movie (“Rough on Rats” and instrumental closer “Mutilation”). Beck has mostly been a consistently enjoyable artist since Mellow Gold from two decades ago, but I thought Morning Phase was Beck’s biggest disappointment, big on production but low on both emotion and actual tune. With Song Reader, Beck hasn’t just disappointed once this year; he’s disappointed twice.