On his new “album”—it’s actually a collection of sheet music—Beck tries to revive the days of singing ‘round the piano.
The advent of recorded sound upended our notions of what music could be. Rock, jazz, hip-hop, dub, reggae, disco, and most other popular genres born in the past century are tied to recordings; their life is not in sheet music. Recorded music gave us an array of new possibilities, new sounds, and new confusion about authorship.
Song Reader takes us back to an era when sheet music was king. In this simpler, seemingly halcyon time, friends would gather around a piano in the parlor and play popular songs together. Sheet music served another purpose, too; it was a commodity that could be bought, sold, attributed to a single author, and copyrighted. (The copy machine was decades from being invented.)
Song Reader was partly inspired by the story of a song called "Sweet Leilani," released by Bing Crosby in 1937. "Apparently, it was so popular that, by some estimates, the sheet music sold 54 million copies," Beck marvels. "Home-played music had been so widespread that nearly half the country had bought the sheet music for a single song, and had presumably gone through the trouble of learning to play it. It was one of those statistics that offers a clue to something fundamental about our past."
The funny thing is, Bing Crosby couldn't read sheet music. He wouldn't have been able to sing his best-selling "Sweet Leilani" from the notation. By all accounts, Crosby had a great ear; he could apparently learn a song after hearing it once. Crosby became increasingly dependent on recording and eventually helped to ignite the recording revolution in America.
In the late 1940s, Crosby wanted to prerecord his popular radio shows, so he could play more golf and spend more time with his family. The lacquered transcription discs of the era, used for voice recording, didn't sound good enough. But tape machines were capable of capturing high-quality audio, which could then be edited. In 1947, Crosby saw a demo of the German Magnetophon tape recorder in action and was highly impressed; the Germans made the best tape machines at that time. Crosby quickly realized that tape recording was the key to more golf. In 1948, Crosby helped kick-start Ampex, the legendary American tape-machine maker, which was then in its early stages, by cutting the nascent company a check for $50,000.
In some small way, Crosby helped make Beck possible. Few artists are more savvy about the possibilities of the recording studio than Beck; he routinely collaborates with top producers like Nigel Godrich and recently took a turn as a producer himself. In 2002, Beck broke up with his long-term girlfriend, and fun party-music Beck made way for painfully sincere acoustic-guitar Beck. But the "stripped-down" sound of the resulting album, Sea Change—made with Godrich's help—is just as painstakingly constructed as Beck's sample-heavy records. Listen closely and you'll hear the subtle effects on the vocals, the layers of overdubs, the reverb on the guitar. It is a product of the recording studio, just like everything else Beck has done.
Song Reader is the latest signpost of the new earnestness in our culture, a culture that McSweeney’s is a part of, too. Like pickling, building your own furniture, or painstakingly recreating cocktails from the 1920s, Beck's Song Reader encourages us to work on a craft, to revive a bygone era. It's not a bad thing—it's a constructive impulse, and a sincere one.
Take it as an opportunity to spend a few fun hours with a sibling during the holidays, or use it as an excuse to pick up a guitar again, or even as a way to think a bit differently about what it means to live in the age of recorded music. Just don’t mistake it for a manifesto.
Geeta Dayal is the author of Another Green World, a recent book on Brian Eno.