(Certainly, I will be changing my mind about certain aspects of the album, but there's one thing that won't change--this album is absolutely gorgeous, and already it is one of my favorites).
Click the album cover to hear what Duncan has to say about _Phantom Moon_.
Maybe the most obviously different aspect of this, Duncan Sheik's latest studio effort, is the cover. Well, to be precise, the first thing you notice is what isn't on the cover--namely, a glossy, stylized glamour shot of the handsome singer. This move to play down Duncan's looks proclaims clearly and distinctly that the music is to stand on its own--and indeed, it does.
_Phantom Moon_ is Duncan's third LP, and by all accounts, some of his best work to date. The vocals swing between ethereal otherwordliness and earthy, dark humanity. The arrangements and the production are light and spare, but never timid. I have to declare this album a real contender for the top ten for 2001. It is hard to imagine much that can top this. The lyrics are written by Duncan's SGI-mate and New York playwright, Steven Sater, and this album is, in part, some of the would-be musical elements of Sater's play, "Umbrage," which has not yet been produced. Luckily, this did not stop the pair from combining their efforts to produce a beautiful and compelling album.
The lyrics remind one of Duncan's writing at its most mystical; think "Nichiren," "November," or "Foreshadowing (Over and Out)." Unlike his debut album, _Phantom Moon_ boasts no stand-out pop radio hit. This is to its credit. "Barely Breathing" was, despite all appearances, really a detriment to Duncan's career. The radio-friendly jingle effectively marginalized him in the eyes of his most likely audience--thoughtful, mature, lovers of folk music and intellectual musings. _Phantom Moon_, properly promoted, will reconcile Duncan's music to the audience most likely to embrace him as its own. Fans of Nick Drake, Dar Williams, or Elliot Smith will enjoy the new music.
Duncan uses much of his expansive vocal range on this album, soaring up into high, searching wails and moving back down to low, almost gutteral croonings and purrings. We see this especially on "Time and Good Fortune," a sonically dynamic and engaging piece about pursuing artistic and intellectual growth even to the exclusion of finding emotional interaction and attachment. Sater writes, "A whole long life spent tuning strings,/ And will it now mean anything/ But empty chords that only bring/ An endless, voiceless sorrowing?" Notably, this song, like many others on _Phantom Moon_, touches on themes in Duncan's own lyrics--one is reminded of "Reasons for Living," "Bite Your Tongue," or "Nothing Special."
"Far Away" is a soft, touching song of love and longing, and one of the few songs with any electric instruments (Bill Frisell contributes electric guitar in what amounts to a lovely, wandering solo that extends through the entire length of the song). Overall, we hear on this album acoustic guitar, bass, a little piano, some drums sometimes. Other instruments fill in at times, but mostly, the arrangement has at its heart a simple grouping of sounds, elevated to complexity through its expert application. Every detail of this album is executed with loving care. His influences come out at times--but Duncan incorporates them into the larger whole without allowing them to consume it. It is uncanny, for example, how much Duncan's music for "This Is How My Heart Heard" owes to Jeff Buckley's "Lover, You Should've Come Over," and yet how unmistakably "Duncan Sheik" it is.
"Sad Stephen's Song" opens with the enigmatic lines, "And there were mermaids--weren't there?--/ Sweet silver mermaids,/ All through that grey Trafalgar Square/ Such silver mermaids." Lyrically, it's a kind of dream-vision, intertwining bustling, urban landscapes with watery myth and touches of escapist fantasy and romantic longing. The music echoes this kind of nostalgic stasis, moving toward an end and yet remains strangely timeless. The repetition of a perfect fifth interval on acoustic guitar throughout the song contributes to this eerie effect. Duncan's keen sense of musicality becomes more obvious with every album. And his piano-playing here is better than ever--"Mr. Chess" stands out for the impressive attack and boldness of the piano throughout this track, lending a kind of rushed urgency and desperation that seems singularly appropriate to a song that repeats, "I beseech you, Mr. Chess." Duncan applies a calmer technique to "The Winds That Blow," where the piano winds through the melody in a more unassuming manner.
Helping Duncan out instrumentation-wise are some artists familiar by now to Duncan's fans. Gerry Leonard (a.k.a. Spooky Ghost), returns with his quirky, atmospheric, guitar playing, rounding out the sound and smoothing down the edges. Leonard also appears on dobro, dulcimer, and banjo. Matt Johnson is back on drums, adding a light touch, a soft, pulsating rhythm that meanders through several of the pieces (except for "Mouth on Fire" and "A Mirror in the Heart," where he lets loose and contributes a chill, rocking feel). We also have Jeff Allen on bass, and once again, Simon Hale adds his arrangements to the mix, this time working with the London Session Orchestra for the songs with a more layered, complex, sound. While most Sheik fans will agree that it would have been a treat to hear more from cult favorite, Juliet Prater, there is no place for her percussion on this album (gorgeous, though it be). Maybe next time.
Duncan produced this album himself, and you can hear the control that Duncan has over his sound. Perhaps the fact that this album was never supposed to be a hit has allowed Duncan the freedom to create a much better album than he could under the pressures of high commercial expectations. On this album, Duncan achieves what few musicians can--conveying real, raw emotion without slipping into caricature. While we might feel embarassed for other artists trying to convince us that they are pained and bleeding, Duncan makes it look as though it's not even hard. The feelings must have practically oozed right onto the DAT in the recording studio. And if someone didn't tell you that he hadn't written these lyrics, you probably wouldn't guess. Vocal interpretation is at least as difficult an art as writing and performing one's own songs, and Duncan nails it every time, on each of these thirteen tracks. Of course, lucky owners of the _Humming Along_ EP know that performing tasteful and transformative covers is nothing new for him, but there is nothing like what Duncan achieves on _Phantom Moon_ on that short album. The EP's cover of The Smith's "Reel Around the Fountain" is a blissfully smooth and witty interpretation. Duncan turned in a cover of Nick Drake's "River Man," however, that was oddly antiseptic (especially considering his love of the late folksinger's work). Conversely, every track on _Phantom Moon_ is a success.
"Mouth on Fire" recalls moments of the eponymous debut at times--in
fact, everything that is good about Duncan's first two releases is echoed
and magnified on _Phantom Moon_. Those who have dubbed _Phantom Moon_ a
risk must view the success of music in purely commercial terms. It is clear
upon even the first listening that Sheik and Sater left nothing to chance,
in terms of real quality. This album might go underappreciated in its time--but
then, so did _Pink Moon_, and Duncan's hero, Nick Drake, before it.
It feels like I'm HOME.