Life, Love, and the Pursuit of Radio Play

By Michelle Walson '99 / September / October 2002
June 29th, 2007
Daylight by Duncan Sheik '92 (Atlantic Records, $13.98).

Duncan Sheik '92 makes a bold claim at the beginning of his fourth album. "Clearly I'm a genius," he sings, above an acoustic melody on the first track, "Genius." And who's to say he's not? After all, Sheik has undertaken some high-minded projects lately, stretching his talents beyond his pop radio beginnings. He spent his summer composing musical vignettes for the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival's presentation of Twelfth Night in Central Park, an unlikely venue for a singer-songwriter. But now, with Daylight, Sheik returns to a straightforward pop format and the concerns that come with it: life, love, and the pursuit of radio play.

This is, of course, familiar territory for Sheik. Shortly after the release of his 1996 self-titled debut CD, his best-known single, "Barely Breathing," shot to the top of the Billboard charts and stayed there for a record thirty weeks. Since then Sheik has seemed at home with more esoteric fare. An introvert with a spiritual side (now thirty-two, he has been a practicing Buddhist since he was nineteen), he created sullen, dreamy soundscapes on his 2001 collection, Phantom Moon, a highly literate collaboration with playwright Steven Sater. That album's haunting beauty earned him critical acclaim but little in the way of sales - which may explain why Sheik changed his approach with Daylight. "I was interested in making a record that seemed more positive and electric, but still contained within it layers of subtlety and nuance," he wrote in a statement about his new album.

In Daylight's better moments, Sheik succeeds in fitting the pop mold while investing it with greater sophistication. A searching song called "Half-Life" is a reminder of his gift for instrumentation, which has distinguished him from the pack of confessional singer-songwriters from the start. (Sheik could have a future in scoring films.) "Half-Life" starts simply with guitar and piano before it crescendos in a moving, lush arrangement that includes strings from the London Session Orchestra.

This knack for picking strong collaborators is another of Sheik's strengths. "Start Again," perhaps the album's best offering, was penned by guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Gerry Leonard (who's worked with David Bowie and Laurie Anderson). This harder-edged rock number shows the freedom Sheik seems to enjoy when working with other people's words.

If only Daylight didn't include songs like its first single, "On a High," which Sheik's management has been promoting to multiformat pop radio outlets. It features synth sound effects, an Enrique IglesiasÐstyle dance beat, and repetitive lyrics that say all there is to say about this forgettable song: "I'm on a high, on a high, there's nothing more to it."

Daylight is an above-average pop album with a handful of cuts that pander too obviously to top-forty tastes. Perhaps this is the influence of producer Patrick Leonard (Madonna, Jewel, Elton John). Or perhaps it's the natural consequence of Sheik's efforts to straddle the worlds of high art and MTV. True genius may be both a blessing and a curse.

Michelle Walson '99 is a freelance writer in Somerville, Massachusetts.
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September / October 2002