From the ominous opening synth lines which decorate “Selling Out”, pop tunesmith Duncan Sheik exposes his walking contradictions: he bemoans artifice while simultaneously embracing the contemporary stylings of U2 and Coldplay. “She says from the heart that she does it for the art, but I don’t know/Everything I’m telling you is a song I’m selling you/Uh-oh, uh-oh..” So which is it? Are you “selling out” or offering self-critique? In your defense, you’ve spent the better part of an esteemed career trying to exorcise the one-hit-wonder ghosts exhumed by your biggest (and only) radio staple, the adult-contemporary ballad “Barely Breathing.” You’ve explored the world of Tin Pan Alley, and have the Tonys to affirm your success: 2007’s Spring Awakening garnered you both best orchestration and original score; you’ve scored for the big screen (A Home at the end of the World, and Through the Fire). By all accounts, you’ve achieved both success and accolades for your work. So why do I get the sense part of you still seeks validation?
That search for validation is a lyrical theme on Legerdemain, as Sheik dons the hat of musical chameleon. Its other overarching theme is artistic compromise – there’s a lot of talk about prostituting your art, giving the public the pablum it wants, for the price tag of your soul. Musically speaking, this is certainly Sheik’s most consistent, variegated exercise; the textures may feel a tad derivative, but then Sheik has never been the archetype of contemporary pop, he’s its alchemist. “Sometimes” combines the airy harmonies of Seal with a lead vocal which evokes Peter Gabriel, leading me to ask why he didn’t consider having Gabriel sing on it – after all, why emulate when you can have the genuine article? And that question insistently comes up as this song-cycle unfolds. At least half the tunes on Legerdemain unabashedly display their musical forebears, and I would think with all the commercial success and status he’s earned via stage and screen work, a few markers could have been called in.
“Photograph” pays homage to the overbearing folk/frat leanings of Mumford and Sons – maybe having Marcus Mumford himself would boost it’s chart-appeal; “Birmingham”‘s aural backdrop has the feel of a lost Pet Shop Boys chestnut (replete with male/female vocals on the chorus); “Warning Light”‘s electro-pop template complements his whispered, introspective lines (“I can compel you to fight this fight/It’s pretty much black and white/I’m not trying to sell you….you need to make it right”); “Bicycle Thief” blends Coldplay’s Ghost Stories vibe with Wedding Album-era Duran Duran. And all these songs work remarkably well, but without the contributions of the influences he displays on his sleeve, Legerdemain comes off as the sound of an artist trying too hard to be hip, to be contemporary, to be relevant.
By the time “Acquaintance” breezes by with its acoustic pageantry and Iron and Wine-ish atmosphere, the listener becomes similarly conflicted. Should I consider this to be “Duncan Sheik Sells Out” or an understated gem, perhaps ironically name-checking sonic signposts to make his point that pretty much everything is temporal, disposable, an unwitting compromise? Or is Sheik giving props to ambitious works that somehow fell by the commercial wayside? “No Happy End” and “Brutalized” both hearken to Sting’s more ambitious but unsuccessful outings – the latter in particular offers lyrical inference to 2014’s The Last Ship, an album which I praised to the rafters, then inadvertently omitted from my Top Ten list of said year. Uh-oh, uh-oh. I first heard about this release via an early promotional blurb/interview on NPR – you know, the radio network for latté-sipping, cultural connoisseurs. And even there, while visibly excited to discuss the new album, there were moments where Sheik struck me as not entirely comfortable with the process of having to “sell” this record prior to it’s actual release date. Yet, being a pop music trivia answer would make anyone a little uneasy. Nearly twenty years later, it seems Duncan Sheik is still waiting to exhale.