March 15, 2001

Poetic License

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The word poetic means many things to many people. For some it calls to mind red roses and blue violets and other such nauseating, allergenic objects. To others it’s more like a good sentence spoiled. Still others consider poetry something that speaks in a cooler way what would normally be expressed a bit more plainly. For Duncan Sheik on his latest album, Phantom Moon, poetry comes closest to meaning the latter. He riffs off the sonic, melodic style of pop that he has cultivated on his last few albums, and strips away the instant accessibility. In short, he creates an album that you won’t be able to sum up all at once. He reveals its complexity in layers. First it’s the lyrics, then the guitars, then the strings, and then, you listen to it again and realize you’ve missed almost everything that was going on.

In the loosest terms, Duncan Sheik might be characterized as a singer/songwriter, but on Phantom Moon he acts more as a composer. In fact, in terms of lyrics, he doesn’t really write at all. The album credits every word to poet/lyricist Steven Sater, whose jarring touches are a noticeable departure from Sheik’s former accessible lyrical style. While Sheik’s lyrics were often more obviously romantic on Humming, Sater’s words on Phantom Moon are characterized by the sort of puzzles that Freshman English majors hate. On the elusive “Mr. Chess” Sater writes: “I dream of many things,/ Of floating, solitary kings,/ Of pawns and people with blue sequins through their hair.” Often, though, the lyrics are overly poetic and border on floral imagery, often referencing the same hollow concepts. On “Lo and Behold” the refrain professes: “A hollow land of autumn breeze,” and again on “Far Away,” Sater writes: “Falling through the autumn evening,/ every darkened street.”

The real champion of the album is Sheik himself, who fits his array of acoustic and electric guitars perfectly between the lyrics. He also sings Sater’s lyrics fluidly enough to compensate for their occasional heavy-handedness. On the album’s most melodic cut, “A Mirror in the Heart,” Sheik plays guitar, piano, and harmonium. His voice encourages the song’s energy all the way into the full falsetto that floors the first-row college girls at every show. On “This is How My Heart Heard,” Sheik even adds the London Session Orchestra to underpin his funky elocution of: “I forgot the taste of fears/ And how they haunt the lips you’re kissing/ And how love’s just a waste of tears.”

Sheik’s savvy orchestration and his cultivated music-writing skills allow his latest album to fall into succession with his past mastery. Some might criticize that Phantom Moon will fall short of producing a single, but others will realize that Duncan Sheik’s emphasis is on the entire album. In the age of CDs, this is a rare throwback to the days of LPs, and Sheik can comfortably be proud of his retro-cool. He has made a wonderful record.

Archived article by Ari Fontecchio