duncanThe recent arrival of Duncan Sheik’s new studio album, his sixth, called The Whisper House offers an occasion to thank heavens, once again, that Duncan Sheik and musical theater have found each other.  In another bygone era, Duncan Sheik might have been a world class superstar for his sophisticated pop melodies, the elegant orchestrations they’re often set to, the mysterious melancholy and dark humor of his lyrics, and the mordant understatement of his singing.  Even at the peak of his pop stardom, when songs like “Barely Breathing” and “She Runs Away” found their improbable way onto Top 40 radio playlists, there was something incongruous and off-putting about Sheik’s lack of either angst or bombast.  The first time I heard his self-titled 1996 debut album, I thought the whole thing entirely too wispy and pale.  In hindsight, there are few records from that time period that have aged better.

Nevertheless, Sheik’s career as a pop singer has met with increasing indifference for the last decade, and certainly not because he hasn’t been making worthwhile records.  But that isn’t to say his career as a composer has been flagging.  In fact, Whisper House follows up on what is indisputably Sheik’s greatest musical success – the score for the Broadway musical Spring Awakening, which won him two Tony Awards (for score and orchestrations) in 2007, and, if you were to survey the nation’s high school drama geeks, is probably the coolest Broadway musical of this decade.  Sheik’s relationship with musical theater is completely symbiotic – Sheik and Broadway have benefited from each other equally in terms of establishing claims on the hearts of a previously under-served constituency of earnest, dramatically inclined teens and twenty-somethings with relationship issues.

Spring Awakening was not Sheik’s first theatrical venture – his 2001 album Phantom Moon (which earned Sheik lingering and not altogether wrong-headed comparisons to Nick Drake) was a collaboration with Spring Awakening lyricist Steven Sater which had aspirations to the stage, and he also contributed to the off-Broadway show Songs from an Unmade Bed.  It’s heartening, then, to see that Sheik’s making the best of his unexpected resurgence with Whisper House, an album’s worth of songs taken from the forthcoming musical of the same name about a young boy who, after his father perishes in World War II, is sent to live with his creepy Aunt Lilly in a haunted lighthouse.  And though the album could very easily have just been the sort of product that whets the public appetite for an even bigger, more expensive product, Whisper House works quite well as a stand-alone pop album – one of Sheik’s strongest and most coherent, at that.

The conceptual structure of the record certainly helps:  it doesn’t try to tell a story so much as to establish a thematic frame for the songs to fill, along with a set of characters to populate the songs with.  There’s a purposefulness and cohesiveness to Whisper House that had been lacking on some of Sheik’s previous records.   Also helping matters is the sustained presence of singer Holly Brook who duets with Sheik on many of these songs, and the wind ensemble directed by Simon Hale, which adds a storybook sense of magic to these songs.  Brook and Hale’s contributions are highlighted on the lovely, contemplative “And Now We Sing”, which Brook sings mostly solo and which closes with a gorgeous and, indeed, haunting extended instrumental coda.

Sheik’s and Brook’s voices blend beautifully in harmony, but to my ears, they sound even better in “conversation”, as on the opening track “It’s Better To Be Dead”, in which the two singers trade verses, offering up a grim (however grand) parade of the various living denizens of the old lighthouse, briefly hinting at each of their unfortunate fates, as each somberly leering verse ends with the nagging affirmation that they’d all be “better off dead”.  It’s a great start to the record, coming off like one of those costume-y, British vaudevillian macabre ballads from the 1890’s, a vibe that occasionally, momentarily resurfaces throughout the album, most effectively on “The Tale of Solomon Snell”, which sounds like a Lemony Snickett story in song.

But none of this is pastiche, and in fact, the bulk of the album sounds, appropriately enough, like the proper follow-up to Sheik’s 2006 album White Limousine.   With an orchestral tide of buzzy keyboards and choppy rock guitars on its anthemic chorus, the ebulliently threatening lead single “We’re Here To Tell You” is the closest Sheik has come to shoo-in radio fodder since his 2002 single “On a High” became an unexpected club hit.  And even though they clearly advance the narrative theme, songs like “Play Your Part” and “Take a Bow” don’t require the bigger picture context to be appreciated on their own as adorably (but not oppressively) snappy pop songs.  On the other hand, with their cloying encouragements and obvious theatrical metaphors, they seem destined to become staples of the high school show choir canon – this despite the fact that they both seem more ironic than inspirational in the actual context of the story.

Also, in the age of iTunes and digital downloads, it’s worth mentioning that the physical CD version of Whisper House comes in an lovely package, a sturdy tri-fold digipack covered in character illustrations, featuring an illustrated booklet that offers up a synopsis of the story in storybook excerpts to go with each of the album’s 10 songs (on the last few pages, the words become more obscured so as not to give away the ending).  Not only does this CD have me excited about the actual musical, it’s got me excited about Duncan Sheik’s songs.  Again.