Until John Mayer blew the scene wide open, times weren’t so good for pop/rock singer-songwriters. Whatever you might think about Mayer, he certainly led the new vanguard of earnest white guitar strummin’ dudes to Top 40 radio. One of the only artists to break through the door in the Nineties was Duncan Sheik. Most folks whose memories get jogged at the mention of Duncan’s name are familiar with his one big hit, 1996’s “Barely Breathing”. That song gained Duncan a Grammy nomination and stayed on the charts for what seemed like years (actually-it did remain on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart for over a year).
Duncan never again approached that level of commercial success, although, as you know, just because you don’t score a series of hits, it doesn’t mean you stop working. Sheik kept plugging along, releasing albums that were a bit more sophisticated musically and lyrically than those of the average singer/songwriter. Sort of like James Taylor as filtered through Bryan Ferry.
2002’s “Daylight” marked his artistic pinnacle-the perfect synthesis of his literate songwriting with a pop sheen. It only spawned a minor hit single (“On a High”) and sold a paltry 75,000 copies, but it stands as one of the best singer/songwriter albums of it’s time.
(embedding has been disabled on the video for “On a High”, go check it out here)
Re-reading a review I wrote of the album nearly eight years ago (which I’m a little too embarrassed to share with you lot), I find that the same things I loved about the album then are the same things I love about the album now. “On a High” is a bit of an anomaly, mood-wise. Most of “Daylight” is contemplative or plaintive. Love songs like “For You” have the atmospheric yet heartfelt quality that Seal once had but lost as soon as he met Heidi Klum.
The swelling strings of “Half Life” are the perfect complement to Duncan’s heart-wrenching vocal. Anyone out there that feels like they’ve just found someone to complete them? This song was written for you. For my money, though, the best songs on “Daylight” have a slight sarcastic to them-the deceptively jaunty “Genius” and “Good Morning!”, a song that contains a line that I want to print out, frame and put up in my house (or at least use as a voice mail message or a Facebook status update):
“Who needs to join the circus?
Come on, just look around…
We are surrounded by a bunch of fucking clowns!”
If I ever meet Duncan, I will hug him for writing those lyrics.
Duncan may have missed the singer/songwriter boat by a couple of years, but even if he’d come out in the era of Jason Mraz/Jack Johnson, he’s probably a little too urbane and literate to have competed with them for the Joe Fratboy audience. Not that I think Duncan’s hurting-he’s found success as a Tony and Grammy-winning composer for the Broadway show “Spring Awakening”. He’s also composed the music for the upcoming Broadway production of “American Psycho”.
Duncan continues to record as well-his most recent album was released in 2009. “Daylight” is out of print physically, but you can certainly grab a copy on Amazon or grab it digitally. If you’re a fan of well-composed pop, I guarantee you won’t regret the purchase.