Undeniable Truth of Life No. 427: Duncan Sheik's "Barely Breathing" was the best pop song of the '90s. Marvelously crafted with an uncanny sense of buildup and a hook that never tires, the song spent some 55 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, proving that sometimes the general public latches on to great music.
As terrific as "Barely Breathing" is, it's something of an exception for Sheik. The singer-songwriter has devoted more time to developing a personal style of art-pop in the vein of the late Nick Drake than to writing pop hooks. Most of his songs are acoustic, and he often employs unusual instrumentation. (How many pop stars use bass clarinets, harmoniums and bodhrans?) It's as if he were single-handedly trying to render pop music respectable and more profound. Somehow, though, there's not even a hint of self-righteousness in his work.
Sheik's latest disc, Phantom Moon, clearly illustrates his depth. He shuns the easy road in favor of a far more esoteric project: setting the words of his playwright friend Steven Sater to music. These lyrics are not likely to attract a mass audience. Take the opening verse of the definitely-not-ready-for-Top 40 "Mouth on Fire": "And there, the bones do sleep / And there the soul is soul / And there, the gods do weep / When the angels fall " The song is almost monumental. It opens with slightly haunting, melancholy chords and builds to the brink of bombast as the strings powerfully underscore Sheik's voice. The vocals begin up close and personal but soon slip their tether into a full-on wail. The bridge is somewhat dissonant and pensive as the guitars punctuate the rhythm underneath, and the transitions are artful. As the song resolves into a slow fade, Sheik sings his final verses, and the musical caravan arrives at its destination.
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The rest of Moon, which includes a guest shot by Americana jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, is equally unpop and very sophisticated. On the whole, it's one of the more rewarding efforts of 2001's first quarter and likely will end up on a few year-end lists.
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For all his Hollywood looks and pop acumen, Sheik obviously has loftier aspirations than riding high on the charts. Be thankful, for as it stands, this 31-year-old musician is leaving an impressive body of work in his wake.