Beck’s disillusionment with the rock industry reached its apex last year, when he released his new ‘album’ as a volume of sheet music. Beck was returning from ill-health and was known to be unhappy with the relatively poor sales of his recent records, so ‘the album’ seemed the ultimate shoulder shrug: an eccentric gesture of little use to fans craving new material (inevitably, it was released in conjunction with the home of trying-too-hard quirkiness, publishing house McSweeneys).
What was not known, at the time, was that Beck was at work on a comeback LP proper, the seductively downbeat Morning Phase (where he stares middle age in the eye and concludes growing old may not be the end of the world).
Perhaps emboldened by its success, Beck has followed it up with this recorded version of Song Reader, featuring artists such as Jack White, folkie Laura Marling and sometime Pulp leader, Jarvis Cocker
With so many voices, Song Reader 2.0 was bound to be somewhat of a muddle. At its best it is quite glorious: White’s scatted mugging on ‘I’m Down’ verges on guilty pleasure; Marling’s siren voice cuts through ‘Sorry’; and Sparks, the oddball electro pair from Los Angeles, wax weird and wacky on ‘Why Did You Make Me Care?’
Elsewhere, though, an abundance of cleverness pulls the rug from under the songs — exhibit ‘A’ being Jack Black’s predictably overcooked ‘We All Wear Cloaks’, though New York Doll David Johansen pushes him close with his sub-Tom Waits croak on ‘Rough On Rats’. In each case, the singing overwhelms the music, so that Beck’s compositions are mere background colouring.
Tellingly the finest moment, the Abbey Road-esque ‘Heaven’s Ladder’, consists of Beck accompanied by just slide guitar and shuffling drums. It’s a reminder of what he does best. If only he did it more often.