What ultimately grabs you about Whisper House, the first new album from Duncan Sheik since 2006, is just how subtle the guy can be – which doesn’t necessarily sound like the word one would generally use to describe a singer/songwriter who’s dabbled in Broadway and has won more Tonys than he has Grammys. Yet it’s a fitting one nevertheless for Sheik, a singer-turned-actor-turned-singer-again who comes across less as a primadonna and more as a pop craftsman.
Indeed, more than anything, Sheik reminds one of early Elton John — and not the brazenly theatrical John of Captain Fantastic, either, but the more subdued, restrained John of Tumbleweed Connection and Empty Sky, albums that essentially created the template for ’70s singer/songwriterism and provide an obvious blueprint for Whisper House. These are songs constructed carefully, unfolding gradually, their hooks sinking on over time – songs that might initially sound a little bland, but prove over time to be deceptive, far more elaborate and meticulous than they seem at first. Verses build off of one another and choruses gradually become more and more striking, even as Sheik flavors his folk-pop with whispered hints of jazzy shuffles and country lilts.
Whisper House is very much a pop album, but a measured and meditative one, very much befitting an album that was conceived as a song cycle about death and dying. Yes, there is a narrative at play here — again, no surprise given Sheik’s stint on Broadway — but what makes the album work is that, even as you can detect clear narrative structure when he introduces the characters on “It’s Better to be Dead” or moves into an explicitly dramatic, storytelling mode on “The Tale of Solomon Snell,” the narrative conceit never obscures Sheik’s pop sensibilities, which means that the album can be enjoyed with or without trying to keep up with the storyline.
Indeed, it doesn’t feel like a Broadway musical so much as a small tome of short stories, a feeling enhanced by the presence of Holly Brook, whose duets with Sheik on several of these songs aren’t theater pieces so much as snippets of overheard conversation. In fact, the most theatrical thing about the album is the actual substance of its songs, which riff off the idea of life as a stage, with death as the inevitable final curtain. Thus, the spectral presence of mortality is never far from any of these songs, and is, in fact, quite explicit on “It’s Better to be Dead” and “We’re Here to Tell You.” But Sheik isn’t morbid; in fact, he’s surprisingly life-affirming, sounding like he’s offering a cautionary tale about taking life for granted while exhorting us to “play our part” and live to the fullest in light of the final bow that awaits us all.
It’s a sophisticated piece of work that rewards repeated listens, both so as to appreciate its craft and its insight. In fact, it can sometimes be a little too sophisticated, or at least too subtle; a few tracks don’t quite seem to take off the way they were intended to, largely due to the fact that Sheik is stretching his limits as a vocalist every now and again, and final track “Take a Bow” offers a big, dramatic payoff that isn’t quite earned by the quieter songs that come before it. These are largely quibbles, however, as Whisper House is a fine record from a talented recordmaker, and, if he plans to keep making albums as solid as this one, one hopes Broadway won’t become too great a distraction for him.