Beck’s newest album isn’t meant for your record player, your CD player, your MP3 player, or your computer hard drive. Take all these devices (and your cassette player if you still have one) and put them in the corner. Put your headphones there too. Then, find a music stand and a ukulele. You’re ready.

Song Reader is an album in the form of a song book consisting of 20 individual booklets, artist-designed covers, and 114 pages in total. Published by McSweeney’s, the collection exudes the kind of playful wit and typographic flourish now expected from items in their oeuvre. And though many elements of the project are influenced by, or directly reference sheet music of the early 20th century, the concept behind the album — deconstructing songs and outsourcing their performance — is decidedly contemporary.

Before the record player, before the radio, sheet music was the mode by which popular music was sold, learned, and performed. The music publishers of New York’s infamous Tin Pan Alley churned out ballads, rags, marches, polkas, and novelty songs galore. Bold graphic design, illustrations, and boastful ads for additional musical numbers adorned the front and back covers. Sheet music for a single song could sell millions of copies. With each home musical performance, the tune was personalized and unique.

While considering the gap of time and technology between the heyday of sheet music and 2012, Beck points to the increasing dematerialization of music as reason for pause. “The question of what a song is supposed to do, and how its purpose has altered, has begun to seem worth asking,” he writes in the book’s preface. While the impulse to re-materialize the song could be seen as a nostalgic effort yearning for the ‘good old days’ when people could play the pianos in their sitting rooms (and when people had pianos in their sitting rooms), Beck’s interest is in the egalitarianism of sheet music and how that translates into the present.

Art: Sergio Membrillas.With Song Reader, he offers his audience not just new Beck songs, but songs written specifically for them. While researching the history of sheet music, he realized his own ‘kind’ of music was less and less appropriate for the album. Instead, he created something broader, more approachable, and more easily inhabited by musicians of many skill levels, instrument preference, and styles.

The songs’ subject matter is varied as their musical influences, with “Now that Your Dollar Bills Have Sprouted Wings” to be played dolefully, and “Why Did You Make Me Care?” set to a swing tempo. Not that these suggestions — or any of the notations — need to be heeded. “Use any instrument you want to,” writes Beck. “Change the chords; rephrase the melodies…Play it fast or slow, swung or straight…Play it for friends, or only for yourself.”

Art: Josh Cochran.So far, the open-source album has spawned a handful of performances submitted by fans to the album site. Suffice to say, they range in terms of quality and watchability. On December 3, a group of professional musicians assembled in a London record store to perform the album with all the bass trombone, tuba, tenor saxophone, and trumpet parts in attendance, yielding the most dynamic and individualized renditions yet. Rumors of a similar performance in Boston circulate the web.

As the online submissions accumulate, the gypsy polka of “Old Shanghai” grows moodier and richer. An early leak of the mellow ’50s-ish tune “Just Noise” is tantalizing. Who will sing it next? And how? No performance will be the best, no performance will be the audience favorite. In the case of these songs, there is no such thing as a definitive version or an original. Song Reader is part careful experiment and part free-for-all, but completely exciting.

Song Reader is available for purchase beginning December 7, 2012. For more information visit

‘Song Reader’ — Written by Beck, Performed by You 14 April,2015Sarah Hotchkiss


Sarah Hotchkiss

Sarah Hotchkiss is KQED Arts’ Visual Arts Editor and a San Francisco-based artist. She watches a lot of science fiction, which she reviews in a semi-regular publication called Sci-Fi Sundays. Follow her at @sahotchkiss.

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