Beyond Beautiful
Duncan Sheik's Phantom Moon is a Quiet Wonder

Thought I wouldn’t make it, didn’t you? It’s still Wednesday by about 20 minutes…

Okay, first up, some random notes about album titles. Everyone seems to be changing their minds lately. First Radiohead decided to give up on that Kid A Kid B thing and call their new one Amnesiac. (It hits on my birthday, June 5, and would make an ideal gift, hint hint…) Now word has come down that Tool’s new one, slated for April 17 and originally titled Systema Encephale, is now called Lateralus. (I liked the old title better. It was like getting two non-words for the price of one.)

Also changed is Bjork’s album, ready to come out on May 22. It was Domestika, and now it’s called Vespertine. Either way, it should be excellent. Finally, even though it’s not a change, I wanted to mention that John Mellencamp, who stubbornly refuses to die, has wonderfully titled his new one Kiss My Mule. It’s between that and Amy Ray’s Stag for best album title of the year so far.

The title can tell you a lot about a record. For instance, from the name of Aerosmith’s new one, Just Push Play, you might expect some generic pop-rock without a lot of imagination, and you’d be right. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it, because it’s a huge backslide from their last one, Nine Lives. Still, for a band whose collective age is right around 250, it ain’t all bad.

On the other hand, from the title of Duncan Sheik’s third album, Phantom Moon, you wouldn’t be remiss in expecting a hushed, acoustic album reminiscent of Nick Drake, and again you’d be right. This is the one I want to spent time on this week, though, because Phantom Moon is a lot more than a knockoff of Drake’s style. In fact, it’s my favorite album of 2001 so far.

Sheik’s always been more than the sum of his hits. His first album soared on the pop hooks of “She Runs Away” and “Barely Breathing,” which typed Sheik as a writer of literate yet accessible radio tunes. If one delved deeper on that album, though, one could hear the first tentative steps of a wunderkind. Even “She Runs Away” is a nearly perfect pop number, combining a finger-picked acoustic style with a great melody. The album, though, decried the singles, remaining a somber affair throughout. It was a genuine mood album, and the singles didn’t seem to fit.

His second effort, Humming, attempted to inject more momentum. In fact, the first three songs on Humming (“In Between,” “Rubbed Out” and “Bite Your Tongue”) were the most rhythmically rocking tunes he’d produced. Sheik’s voice is a somewhat unsteady tenor that never seemed to sit well with his more rollicking material, and hence most of the second album is an ill fit. Humming also showcased his burgeoning talents as a songsmith, however, and hiding behind the hits on this one were meditations like the Jeff Buckley tribute, “A Body Goes Down.” It was a delicate balancing act between pop sensation and serious artist, and Sheik seemed to be growing more adept at it.

Until now.

Phantom Moon is full-on artistry. It’s a gorgeous, accomplished work that makes no concessions to AOR format radio programmers or sales figures. It’s such a hit-free collection that Atlantic refused to release it. Hence it’s out on Nonesuch Records, a tiny subsidiary of Warner Bros. (Isn’t everything a tiny subsidiary of Warner Bros., though?) It’s a disc that makes that rare leap from merely a set of songs to a complete album, one that is best listened to straight through. Preferably, in this case, by a roaring fire on a snowy Saturday evening with all the lights off.

Yeah, Phantom Moon sounds like Nick Drake. More than that, though, it captures the very essence of Nick Drake: that deep chill that begins at the base of your spine, the goosebumps that appear on the back of your neck when an artist decides to be so intimate with you, the listener, that you feel like you’re in the same room. Phantom Moon is hushed, somber, willowy and lighter than air, all at once. It takes more than a passing mimicry of Nick Drake’s acoustic style to get that mixture of emotions right. Duncan Sheik has finally got it right.

With one important exception, every instrument on Phantom Moon is acoustic. The guitar, of course, provides the web that holds it all together, but the sweet thump of acoustic bass is unmistakable, and the organic quality of a piano is impossible to emulate electronically. The album is structured in a wave, beginning with just a voice and a piano on “The Wilderness (Prelude),” which leads into “Longing Town,” one of the sparest songs here. Slowly, over the course of 25 minutes or so, Sheik adds instruments – piano on “Mr. Chess,” drums on “The Winds that Blow,” the full power of the London Session Orchestra on the amazing “Mouth on Fire” – until the buildup reaches full flower with “Far Away.” This song introduces the one plugged-in instrument, Bill Frisell’s terrific electric guitar, and though it remains subdued, it feels huge in context.

Then, slowly again, Sheik starts removing instruments. The last percussion on the album appears four tracks from the end, on the great “Mirror in the Heart.” He wraps it up with “The Wilderness” again, just piano and voice with subtle strings. The effect is like a journey. He starts off alone, meeting people one by one as he continues. One by one, though, they all disappear, and he reaches his destination alone once again.

The most striking aspect of Phantom Moon is the vocal work. Sheik, always more comfortable with the moodier material in his catalog, has chosen to go for intimacy at all costs here. He’s recorded his own vocals close and high, making one feel like he’s standing three feet away. The gutsiest move here is “Lo and Behold,” which Sheik sings almost entirely in a lovely falsetto. The unsteadiness that plagued his earlier vocals is all but gone, and even though he’s never tried something like this, he’s so dedicated to a particular sound that you can’t help falling in love with the effort. Sheik gets you so on his side that you’re rooting for him to perform the song flawlessly, and he comes through. It’s exhilarating.

Lyrics have always been Duncan Sheik’s Achilles heel, marring perfect melodies with banal sentiments. His smartest move on Phantom Moon was to turn the lyrical side over entirely to novelist Steven Sater. His poetry suits the music perfectly, and even though the subject matter remains familiar, the phrasing adds depth. Take this passage from “This is How My Heart Heard”: “I forgot the taste of fears, and how they haunt the lips you’re kissing, and how love’s just a waste of tears on someone who is missing.” It’s a vast improvement over “Oh, darling, don’t you know, the darkness comes and the darkness goes,” if nothing else. Plus, the hushed production makes even the sweetest lines melancholy and adds weight to even the slightest turn of phrase.

This is an important album for Duncan Sheik in a lot of ways. For one, he’s grown and matured as an artist here immeasurably. I can’t imagine the Duncan Sheik of five years ago producing anything like this. More importantly, though, he’s forsworn the simple pop life on this album, digging deeper in a real way for the first time. Phantom Moon is a glorious statement of purpose and the announcement of a serious musician. It’s an album that brings its own atmosphere into every room in which it’s played, and one that is instantly timeless.

There’s no doubt that Duncan Sheik is a fan of Nick Drake. Phantom Moon borrows the style and substance of Drake’s best work. Its true achievement, though, is in reflecting the soul and spirit of Drake, something that even the best imitators can’t do unless they really feel it. After spending a solid week with Phantom Moon, I feel confident in saying that were he alive today, Nick Drake would probably be just as big a fan of Duncan Sheik in return. That is an amazing thing, but Phantom Moon is an amazing record.

See you in line Tuesday morning.