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Beck’s latest musical contribution will be available not on CD, MP3 or vinyl, but on paper.

If you want to hear Beck’s new album, you’re going to have to play it yourself. This month, the singular Grammy winner who once boasted of brandishing “two turntables and a microphone” releases Song Reader (McSweeney’s, $34), a visually sumptuous coffee-table album featuring 20 new songs exclusively in sheet-music form. The project — admittedly not easy listening — is a bold artistic challenge and a madcap creative gauntlet in a pop-culture landscape that favors instant gratification.

“I know the majority of people won’t be able to play this or won’t make the leap required to actually hear these songs,” says the 42-year-old musician. “But there is something interesting, maybe tantalizing, about releasing songs like this. There is the suggestion of treasure or the promise of a song that is sometimes more powerful than a song itself could be.”

Though Beck did not record any of the Song Reader tunes, publisher McSweeney's will showcase fan covers of the oeuvre at songreader.net.
The seeds of Song Reader, nearly 10 years in the making, may have been planted in Beck’s youth, when his interest in obscure rural blues and folk music — most of it only available in sheet-music form — led him to imagine and interpret the songs in his own voice. For Song Reader’s tunes, Beck aimed for the sentimental and melodic simplicity and lyrical directness of American standards, eschewing the hard-biting stream-of-consciousness collage that marks his most popular songs, like “Loser” and “Devil’s Haircut.”

“I was really going for something timeless here, which is emotional and direct, something I don’t always indulge on my own records,” says Beck, who is also working on his next studio album, his first since 2008’s Modern Guilt. “It’s really a scary cliff to walk, creatively. The best songwriters are lucky to survive that walk once or twice. I don’t know if I did, but I tried.”

  • Image about Sheet Music - AmericanWay

In some ways, Song Reader was inspired by legendary crooner Bing Crosby, who sold a reported 56 million copies of the “White Christmas” sheet music at a time when the American population hovered at about 120 million people. “I used to take long walks and think about what those numbers meant, and I’d imagine that every other house I passed on the street had a family gathered around the piano playing that song together,” Beck says. “I love that music can bring people together like nothing else can, and I hope Song Reader can do that.”