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Song Reader
Song Reader
McSweeney's, 2012
108 pp., $34.00

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Jeff Johnson

Play This Song

Beck's countercultural "Song Reader."

With no ties, with no plans,
your last dollar in your hands.
Take a picture and send it back,
to someone you used to know.
—from Song Reader, "Old Shanghai," by Beck

There is a picture in my mind's eye of me in 1970, nearly fourteen years old, holding the first phonograph record I was allowed to buy with my own money, James Taylor's Sweet Baby James. My parents were both musical and owned a varied, though not extensive, assortment of records. Records were considered a luxury, something you sat down and listened to, whereas music was always something to participate in—and there were many opportunities to do so in our church and school choirs. There were piano and voice lessons, too, which meant that music (full of all of its glorious wrong notes) contributed to the soundtrack of our family's life. On the family piano rested a small stack of songbooks and sheet music which eventually included the songbook for Sweet Baby James. We each had our favorites, and even though the availability of recorded music was becoming more widespread, this was primarily how music was experienced in our home.

The same year I was learning those James Taylor songs, Beck Hansen (aka Beck) was born in Los Angeles to a father who was a Canadian, a musician and a follower of Scientology, and to a mother who was one of the infamous "superstars" of Andy Warhol's entourage. Now in his early forties, Beck has forged an impressive body of work often categorized as "alternative" that has nevertheless enjoyed significant mainstream success. He has had four platinum-selling records, including his 1996 Odelay, which was Rolling Stone's Album of the Year. His eclectic style offers a full range of musical and lyrical experimentation that has been greatly dependent on the production and recording techniques of modern studio recording.

Yet for the past decade and a half he has fostered a project of an entirely different kind: "an album that could only be heard by playing the songs." That ...

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