Various Artists, “Song Reader: Twenty Songs by Beck”

Beck-Song-Reader_various-artists_artVarious Artists
Song Reader: Twenty Songs by Beck

An ever-changing chameleon, Beck has always been the Zelig of the alternaverse. His first albums were modernist-minded, bluesy anti-folk before he switched gears with the collagist indie-pop of his 1994 breakthrough Mellow Gold and its star-affirming follow-up Odelay. His course shifted again with the scaled-back Mutations, which found songs kissed by country and inspired by bossa nova, before another swerve found the ADD songwriter delivering the over-the-top funk-soul freakout of Midnite Vultures. By stark comparison, 2002’s Sea Change was a melancholic collection of acoustic laments.

Several more creatively zigzagging LPs followed before he released the not-really-an-album Song Reader in 2012. Rather than go the traditional route and record his tunes, Beck merely published them as sheet music for others to interpret. Now the Artful Dodger of categorization has called together a sprawling, diverse group of friends—from Jack White and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, to Norah Jones and Juanes—to put their own stamp on his compositions.

It’s an interesting proposition that goes far beyond the usual covers collection, where artists tackle codified, previously recorded songs. This allows contributors a refreshing amount of latitude with the material, though it ultimately makes for a fractured, ultimately unsatisfying listening experience.

Moments shine amidst the scattershot. Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker adds a louche touch to “Eyes That Say ‘I Love You,’” while former Thelonious Monster frontman Bob Forrest gives the bluesy barroom treatment to “Saint Dude.” Beck himself only appears once for the standout “Heaven’s Ladder,” which sounds like classic Costello spliced with spiritualized ’70s rock.

In a way, this We Are the (Indie) World get-together is a fitting summation of Beck’s entire career. It flits from one fascination to the next, never stopping long enough to take root. Ultimately, Song Reader feels adrift and uncertain, like even its creator is unsure of what he wants it to be.


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