You'll need something to play the new Beck album on (and a stereo won't do the trick...)

The singer's latest work is out on sheet music only, 'to enlist the listener in the tone of every track'

For some music fans, digital MP3 files aren't a patch on old-fashioned vinyl. But now the singer-songwriter Beck is delving further into the past by releasing an album solely as sheet music.

Song Reader, the latest release by the artist who defined the mid-90s "slacker" era with Loser, will comprise 20 individual song booklets, containing lyrics and musical notation for instruments including the ukulele.

The songs themselves have not previously been released, or even recorded, by Beck Hansen.

How are Beck's fans expected to hear songs such as "Do We? We Do" and "Don't Act Like Your Heart Isn't Hard"? "Bringing them to life depends on you," argues the singer, whose latest release will be presented in an elaborate hard-cover carrying case and illustrated with designs by a dozen artists.

Published by McSweeney's, a San Francisco house noted for its lavishly packaged books and support for new writers, Beck's Song Reader "is an experiment in what an album can be at the end of 2012", according to a post on the Los Angeles-based musician's website announcing the project.

Beck's album is "an alternative that enlists the listener in the tone of every track, and that's as visually absorbing as a dozen gatefold LPs put together". Renditions of the songs by fans and "select musicians" will be featured online.

Instead of being released by a traditional record company, Song Reader will be published in Britain in December by Faber and Faber and sold for £18.99. Beck's reversion to sheet music harks back to the days when a song's popularity was judged from sales of its manuscript.

The music industry was dominated by sheet-music publishers in the 19th century. The development of the gramophone and the rise of recorded music led to the sheet-music chart being replaced by a tally of physical record sales.

With downloading now failing to offset the decline in physical sales, artists hope to entice their committed fanbase with high-value "special edition" versions of their albums.

Blur, who used to include sheet music notation in their CD inner sleeves, last week released a 13-disc vinyl box encompassing all seven of their studio albums plus live DVDs and rarities, which is being sold for £150.

Lee Brackstone, publishing director at Faber, said: "Song Reader makes a radical statement about the value and importance of performed and recorded music at a time when these very things are under threat." He believes Beck, an artist who mixes folk and hip-hop and will also release an audio remix album with composer Philip Glass, is offering a new future for the traditional album.

He said: "Tracks are leaked – intentionally, legally, and unintentionally – and the idea of an album as a unifying statement about a band's style, future direction and present gnostic preoccupations are long consigned to the dustbin of history.

"There are multiple ironies about a pre-analogue project arriving in digital form, but Beck is an artist who has always embraced contrary impulses. He is at once folk troubadour and cut-up po-mo enthusiast. He is artist as chameleon: one of the few remaining global rock stars who glows with untouchability, about whom you are expected to hold an opinion – good or bad."

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