Duncan Sheik has built himself an enduring livelihood as a performer, songwriter, and composer over the past decade and a half. But the short attention span of the pop-culture world ensures that most people who know his name probably peg him as a one-hit wonder. Anyone bringing his name up in casual conversation will likely get a chorus of snide “Where-is-he-now?” responses and clucking disapprobations about how he didn’t have what it takes to make it. Thus, an overview of his career arc is in order.
Sheik’s debut self-titled album was released on Atlantic in 1996, and featured the monster hit “Barely Breathing”, which spent over a year on American hit radio and music television. It wasn’t a great song, but it was a very good song, and it paid great rewards to anyone who was led by it to the full-length. Duncan Sheik was a lushly orchestrated, beautifully understated collection of crystalline folk-pop, which should have delighted fans of Nick Drake, early Tim Buckley, or Terry Callier. Sheik followed it in 1998 with Humming, which was neither as commercially successful nor quite as emotionally compelling. Humming featured a couple of sound-alike tracks which were still quite good, but simply weren’t as effective or charming as those on the debut. They were easy to like, but hard to love. Still, some of the stark, bitter ballads and yearning anthems on the album proved to be just as moving as anything Sheik released before or since.
Sheik switched to Nonesuch for his 2001 release, Phantom Moon, which featured lyrics written by Steven Sater. This would be the first of several collaborations between the two. A bleak and melancholy set, Phantom Moon didn’t have anything that resembled a hit single and so went largely unnoticed outside of more literate pop circles. It was quickly followed in 2002 by Daylight, for which Sheik put on his best Matthew Sweet, with fairly good results. This album brought him briefly back into the limelight, as he (bizarrely) rose to the top of the Billboard dance charts with the album’s first single, “On a High”. More than three years would pass before his next solo record. In the interim, he composed film scores and completed a musical with Sater entitled Spring Awakening, which won two Tony Awards and a Grammy. White Limousine followed in 2006, an album which returned to the sonic palette of his first two albums, but was more uneven and lyrically weak than anything he’d released previously.
Another three years have passed, and Sheik has returned with his latest full-length, Whisper House. Holly Brook, probably best known for her collaboration with Fort Minor on the hit single “Where’d You Go”, provides vocal accompaniment on several songs. At 10 songs and 42 minutes in length, it’s his shortest release yet, which is somewhat surprising considering that the album is being adapted for a stage show slated to debut later in 2009. Whisper House is actually a concept record based upon a ghost story at a Maine lighthouse. Much of the story’s groundwork is laid in the opening track, “It’s Better to Be Dead”, which serves as a prologue of sorts. The story’s main characters are an old woman and a child who live in the lighthouse, but the tale is told by the ghosts, who observe the pair and describe their unfulfilled lives. Through this song and “We’re Here to Tell You”, it becomes clear that the ghosts will act almost like a Greek chorus, if the chorus recited the entire play. They make moral judgments on the characters and admonish the listener, declaring themselves real in the face of reality’s disbelief, all with a fragile, atmospheric pop background behind them. Occasional flourishes of wind and brass instruments sparkle throughout the first two tracks, but the jarring inclusion of a fuzzy electric guitar breaks the second song’s flow.
“And Now We Sing” features brittle harmonies atop a simple guitar accompaniment, with brass and clarinet shading the background. It closes with an extended, impressionistic coda from the chamber instruments, something that will likely put off anyone who isn’t a fan of 20th century developments in art music. It’s followed by “The Tale of Solomon Snell”, a discordant vaudeville-esque parody written in the style of composer Kurt Weill. Sheik is clearly leaning heavily on his musical-theater instincts here, where the interpolation of dissonance for dramatic effect is part and parcel of the musical language. But here, in the context of what is being presented as a pop album, it comes across as grating, even condescending, as if we’re being taught a lesson about modern music. Even some of his attempts at poignancy come up short. For all its poetic grief, “Earthbound Starlight” falls flat. With its awkward progressions and ungainly melodies, it sounds disjointed and stitched together.
This is perhaps being too harsh. The album is by no means all bad, and its second half definitely feels like more comfortable territory for Sheik. “Play Your Part” is as excellent a song as Sheik has ever crafted, supplemented with a high Baroque trumpet that propels the tune to chamber-pop perfection. “I Don’t Believe in You” recalls “She Runs Away” (from Duncan Sheik) and “Rubbed Out” (from Humming), with a sweet major-chord harmony puncturing the overall minor-key setting. Brass and organ swell in the background and a windswept electric guitar takes an unexpected solo, which works better than it did in “We’re Here to Tell You”, although nevertheless still not spectacularly.
Lyrically, Whisper House is patchy. The storyline is fascinating and some of the tales are told inventively, but others have clumsy rhymes and simplistic, clichéd mannerisms (as in “Oh You’ve Really Gone and Done it Now”). The album’s closer, “Take a Bow”, is almost inanely literal. In closing out the story of the ghosts, he assigns to the chorus of this song the line, “The show’s over for now / Take a bow”. A composer closing out a stage show with a song about closing out a stage show walks a fine line between genius and stupid. Perhaps Sheik will surprise with the actual production, but as a purely aural ending, this is pabulum.
One can’t fault Sheik for being ambitious, and certainly his career path shows that he is capable of bringing forth thoughtful, intelligent, well-composed music. But Whisper House just isn’t strong enough to hold up to his previous work. There’s no doubt that a great deal of meticulous work went into the orchestration and songwriting of the album, but the end result isn’t a coherent whole. Here’s to hoping that his next solo record is a return to form – and doesn’t take three years to complete.