"I'm not sure how this song ends, maybe it never does," quips Beck on "Do We? We Do". Nobody knows how it ends, as the Californian has never recorded the track.
It seems a fair while since the alt-rocker was a vital part of the cultural zeitgeist, gracing hip magazine covers. His landmark Odelay was back in 1996; Sea Change was 2002.
So, to spice things up, the 42-year-old pioneer created Song Reader, an “album” that consists of a 108-page book of sheet music for the purchaser to perform themselves. Beck has claimed that the "record" is meant to “Be pulled apart and reshaped”. Do it yourself, in other words. Is it elitist or inclusive [or just plain cheap]?
Well, tonight we’re treated to Beck’s illustrious pals – including Jarvis Cocker, Franz Ferdinand, Beth Orton, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michael Kiwanuka – interpreting the Scientologist’s songs for him. It’s a giddy line-up and hopes are high for a compelling experience, albeit one where you don’t actually recognise the tunes.
Do they pull it off? Hell, yeah. Right from the get go, with Joan As Police Woman's soulful interpretation of "Eyes That Say I Love You", it's clear that this is one concept that's actually going to work. It's helped enormously by having a sensational band, which includes Seb Rochford on drums, Tom Herbert on bass and Dave Okumi on guitar, holding the whole experiment together.
Every act pretty much interprets Beck's material in their own recognisable style. Franz Ferdinand are choppy and Iggy Pop-like on "Saint Dude" and "Leave Your Razors at the Door", Cocker is louche and droll on "Why Do You Make Me Care" and The Staves are rousing and hymnal on "Now That Your Dollar Bills Have Spouted Wings". However, the standouts are Villagers' Conor J O'Brien's sensitive take on "Old Shanghai" and Guillemots' wildly inventive, Bowie-esque version of "Saint Dude".
Even the four poets - a potential recipe for a So I Married an Axe Murderer fiasco - and their caustic readings work splendidly, particularly Simon Armitage's exceptionally lovely "Zodiac T-Shirt", John Cooper Clarke's tirade on sex and death, and The Mighty Boosh's amusing "We All Wear Cloaks". "A glockenspiel solo," Noel Fielding warns us, "it's the most sexual of all the instruments."
Perhaps this one-off concert gels so beautifully because every single artist involved has wholeheartedly bought into the idea. The diminutive Beck, in his trademark black hat, has never felt so vital. A totally unexpected triumph against, as Phil Collins once howled, all odds.