Beck’s 2012 album-on-paper Song Reader project, a collaboration with Dave Eggers’ famously twee publishing house McSweeney’s, was a tribute to an era when sheet music was the primary means for sharing songs. In writing pieces without recording them, Beck hoped to recapture the spark that drove a more populist mindset — one that allowed for countless personal interpretations of what was on the page. ”I wondered if there was a way to explore that world that would be more than an exercise in nostalgia,” he wrote in the introductory essay to Song Reader. ”A way to represent how people felt about music back then, and to speak to what was left, in our nature, of that instinct to play popular music ourselves.”
Song Reader made for a pretty cool objet d’art, and it inspired a boatload of intrepid musicians — rock groups, string ensembles, kooky one-man bands — to upload their versions to YouTube. That freewheeling spirit also informs the new Song Reader compilation, which boasts contributions from not only Beck himself but also fun., Norah Jones, Jack White, Jack Black, and Spanish-language superstar Juanes. ”Heaven’s Ladder” immediately stands out, because it’s the tune Beck kept for himself and because it maintains the sweet, dusty melancholy that permeated Morning Phase, his acclaimed album from earlier this year. Some, including Lord Huron’s shimmering ”Last Night You Were a Dream” and Eleanor Friedberger’s lilting ”Old Shanghai,” come across a bit like attempts to produce what Beck would have wanted. The biggest moments arise when the interpreters resolutely plant their flags: Juanes’ shiny Latin spin on ”Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard,” Jones’ after-hours purr on ”Just Noise,” White’s chaotic blues ramble ”I’m Down,” Laura Marling’s sparse ”Sorry,” and Jarvis Cocker’s cheekily sneering ”Eyes That Say ‘I Love You.”’ Even Black’s ham-fisted ”We All Wear Cloaks” kind of works.
But Song Reader’s greatest victor is undoubtedly Swamp Dogg, a 72-year-old blues crooner from Virginia. He makes ”America, Here’s My Boy” into a vivid, brutally heartbreaking soul weeper about filial responsibility and the horrors of war. It’s hard to imagine Beck himself lending the track that kind of pathos. In doing so, Swamp Dogg captures the message Beck was trying to get across when he first put pen to paper: A song can be great, but it’s not definitive until somebody makes it so. A-
”America, Here’s My Boy”