"Sing It Again," like most of the stuff on Mutations
, was around for awhile long before being recorded. Beck originally wrote it around 1994, when his music publisher called him and said that Johnny Cash was looking for some songs for his new record. She suggested Beck write some new ones, and "Sing It Again" followed. It was never submitted though, because Beck thought it was "rubbish" (his words!). Johnny Cash did end up using "Rowboat
," and Beck stumbled back on to "Sing It Again" when looking for songs to sing while opening for Bob Dylan on December 16, 1997. A few months after that, Beck recorded it for Mutations
What caused Beck to second-guess himself like about the quality of "Sing It Again" is unclear, as the version the band put together for Mutations
is really quite good. (So is that early live preview from December 16, 1997.) Smokey Hormel steals the song from all involved. His electric guitar provides nice touches, while his Spanish acoustic guitar is elegant and beautiful. Smokey was an excellent collaborator for Beck, able to play in all sorts of styles, and willing to try anything. Beck's vocal melody is fairly complex, to boot, and his subtle harmonica work near the end of the song is some of his finest.
"Sing It Again" is one of Beck's more depressing songs, when you look at it closely. It is full of utterly desolate phrases and images: "the trains are wrecked"; "you keep to yourself"; "exit signs are flashing"; dust clouds, crumbs are falling out of the sky. The song plays as mostly a movie of images, not a particular story. Beck did write like this a lot in the early days. Still, there is a perspective and flow to it. It opens on a vacant town, with a sense of being trapped and trying to get out ("exit signs are flashing"). Beck then fairly suddenly twists this into a metaphor on broken love, which leads to closing feelings of resignation: "won't you lay my bags upon the funeral fire and sing it again?" Beautiful language in this one.
Played live 46 times:
December 16, 1997June 11, 1998November 8, 1998November 24, 1998January 10, 1999March 12, 1999April 11, 1999April 12, 1999April 14, 1999April 16, 1999
...and 36 more
Earliest known live version: December 16, 1997
Latest known live version: August 30, 20021997-1998 pre-Mutations "night is younger" version
Beck premiered "Sing It Again" on December 16, 1997. He was opening for Bob Dylan, and needed to find some acoustic/folk songs to play. He ended up digging out some old songs like "Lampshade
" and "Leave Me On The Moon
." More interestingly, he also found some old unrecorded tunes like "Cold Brains
, "Dead Melodies
," "Nobody's Fault But My Own
," and "Sing It Again." Three months after the show, he would take two weeks to record Mutations
, and include each of these! The "Sing It Again" that night was terrific, a strong folk song. The Johnny Cash feel of the tune is more apparent, though recording it with the band took it in a somewhat different direction. The melody, chords, and most of the lyrics are the same, but it's a completely different feel than what we're familiar with. The only lyric changes are "breathing down your neck" in the first line instead of "a town of disrespect" and "you sleep with yourself" instead of "you keep to yourself."
After recording the album, but before it was released, Beck did "Sing It Again" at least once during his summer 1998 tour (June 11 is one we know about).
1998-1999 Mutations tours "stirring the dregs" version
Beck did not tour a lot for Mutations, a handful of promotional shows at the end of 1998, and then a short Japanese tour in 1999. Beck played "Sing It Again" at most of these. I think all of these were done full-band, much like it is on the album - Beck though would add a short harmonica bridge in place of the trombone at the end. Beck's vocals on April 19, 1999 in Tokyo is stunning.
One noteworthy version was on November 24, 1998, at his yearly stop into KCRW, when "Sing It Again" was expanded into a much longer arrangement. After the first verse, a subtle guitar and piano break appears. Then after the second verse, Smokey Hormel plays his usual wonderful guitar solo. After the "sing it again" lines, a short trombone solo extends the song.
2000 Vultures tours "exit signs" version
"Sing It Again," not surprisingly really, rarely showed up on the Midnite Vultures tours, usually in Beck's short acoustic sets. He did it maybe 4-5 times on this tour only. One time, February 3, 2000, was in Michigan, and Smokey Hormel (who was not the guitarist on the tour, but was in town for some reason), joined the group. As always, his guitar solo was a highlight.
2000 Vultures side shows "hanging by threads" version
In spite of not showing up on actual Vultures shows, "Sing It Again" did show up at some side gigs or acoustic type shows that year. Near the end of the tour, there were one or two wonderful band versions of the song were played. Most notable was the one at the This Ain't No Picnic Festival on July 2, 2000, which was enhanced with country piano, one of the best harmonica solos Beck ever blew, and another return of Smokey Hormel! A very strange, incomplete, short version of the song was played on August 22 2000 in Amsterdam. Then at the end of 2000, to come down off the crazy funk of Midnite Vultures, Beck did a series of quieter, acoustic-type shows, in which he played "Sing It Again" fairly regularly.
2001-2002 "tangled webs" version
Not many "Sing It Again"s here, but there was one we know of in the summer 2001 tour. Then in February 2002, right before recording Sea Change, Beck played 4 shows which included many new songs and covers. He did "Sing It Again" at two of those.
2002 solo tour with Smokey "grind their gears" version
Right before Sea Change, Beck went on a solo acoustic tour with Smokey Hormel. They played 20 shows across the USA, doing lots of new songs and covers. Beck and Smokey performed "Sing It Again" at 9 of the shows, I believe always as a two-guitar duet, though the last show was in LA and his whole band was there for half the gig -- and they joined in on the "Sing It Again."
The song has not been performed since this tour. It had a solid history there for the 3-4 years once Mutations came out, but seems to have been dropped fairly abruptly.