Spring Awakening. His new album is a collection of covers of songs from the 1980s.
Duncan Sheik, pictured at home in 2010, won two Tony Awards for his work on the 2006 musical
There was more to the 1980s than mullets and Happy Pants. And fans of bands like Talk Talk or the Blue Nile know there's more to the music from the dawn of synth pop than squiggly sounds wrapped around inane choruses. That's why I so love Duncan Sheik's new album, Duncan Sheik Covers '80s. Lush and sexy, it's also a serious inquiry into what's still relevant about music that many would keep frozen in a mist of Aqua Net hair spray.
Sheik is a pop songcrafter turned Broadway composer who knows what it's like to be dismissed as a lightweight. In his twenties he produced a hit, the strummy "Barely Breathing," that did what uncharacteristic chart-toppers often do for pop musicians: made him seem both more commercial and less interesting than he is.
He eventually recovered by turning to theater, where his score for the groundbreaking Spring Awakening took him into the upper echelons. Now, pop is something Sheik pursues to satisfy himself. On his 1980s project he reimagines songs by the cult favorites mentioned above alongside outings from better-known Brits from Depeche Mode to the Psychedelic Furs. His final product challenges the listener to become conscious of how reductive the nostalgia game can be, and to try to get something more than quick dopamine fix from the process of listening backward.
Reviving a historical moment for nostalgia's sake tends to render it witless. Fed by the twin engines of corporate branding (every era has its signature soda, shoes and endlessly repackagable soundtrack) and personal pathos (oh, to be young and just a little libertine again!), branded nostalgia doesn't benefit from any connections to historical or artistic truth.
Of all the decades revived for profit and sentimental wallowing, the 1980s has arguably been the most distorted. Some, like the writers Simon Reynolds and Rob Sheffield and the filmmakers Michael Winterbottom (with his Mancunian idyll 24 Hour Party People) have focused on particulars to get it right. Yet glances back at '80s popular culture seem unusually prone to snark and the sillies. Hey, that sounds like the name of an '80s band!
For musicians, mining the 1980s has proven very fruitful on a sonic and stylistic level. Synth-pop's colonization of indie rock during the past decade occurred partly because of technology; making electronic music is now such an accessible and self-contained process that going the rock band route seems almost ecologically unsound.
I also wonder if youthful fans of synth pop and New Wave style are looking for ways to be expressive but not overly earnest. To be a party person is to create a safe space for individual liberation and experimentation, and the 1980s model of a party person — crazily clothed, like some kind of exotic bird or Muppet — seems exceptionally well guarded from the risk of being taken too seriously.
Sheik is 41, and has always worn his big ideas modestly (he's a Buddhist and noted humanitarian); his motivations for "going '80s" have little to do with, say, those of the guys in Chromeo. Still, he has admitted that nostalgia was an initial motivation for this release.
He wanted to work up some songs to play for sing-alongs at his friends' dinner parties, and he soon realized that those pals, the cultural elite of post-millennial New York, grew up with the Beatles in their cultural DNA, maybe, but with the New Romantics in their hearts. So he updated his "fakebook" to suit those who wanted to shout it all out, Tears for Fears style.
But Sheik has created something very different than a soundtrack for drunken warbling. This collection of songs by bands like the Thompson Twins, Japan, the Psychedelic Furs, New Order, and those already mentioned is as carefully curated as any hip hop archivist's mix tape, and as neat rendered as any Verve Records-style recording of the American Songbook.
He picked the cream of the crop of British songwriters who explored synthesizer-based sounds at the very moment when technology was shifting the bedrock of pop away from stringed instruments and acoustic drums and toward keyboards. Some were cult artists, like Talk Talk and the Blue Nile, and others major hitmakers. (Controversial omission: Duran Duran; my own disappointment: no Kate Bush.)
Then, Sheik took a step back – removed the electronics, barred all drums, and focused on the songs . He enlisted help from the singers Rachel Yamagata and Holly Brook (who, in her hip hop life, goes by Skylar Grey) and replaced the originals' electronic overload with resonant instruments like marimba, glockenspiel and dulcimer. And he took the tempo down, leading us from the dance floor to the chill out room.
What Sheik's renditions expose are gently off-kilter song structures designed to encourage emotional openness and reflection paired with lyrics that tell stories and do real psychological work.
The opposite of silly, some of these songs confront the most intense periods within intimate relationships —- not the night of a breakup, but the night when one's avoided, in the case of the Thompson Twins ("Hold Me Now"); for Howard Jones ("What Is Love?"), not a lover's rage at discovering betrayal, but his acceptance of it, because he can't bring himself to do otherwise. Others build scenarios as mysterious as the art films popular in repertory cinemas during that era: Japan's "Gentleman Take Polaroids" is as droll as Hitchcock, while The Cure's "Kyoto Song" recalls the psychedelic nightmares created by Nicolas Roeg.
Sheik uncovers the nuances and dark undersides of these songs. He's crafted arrangements that foreground every detail within their verses and allow the often slightly strange chord progressions that enshroud the melodies to work their subtle magic. Even an libidinally charged rocker like "I'm Alive" by Love and Rockets becomes, in Sheik's hands, a meditation on how the psyche constructs itself through a mix of internal will and external stimuli. Yeah, it's that deep. It's not dumb at all.
Another thing Sheik has said about the songs he chose is that, when he was a young art rocker into King Crimson and Pink Floyd, these synthy ballads helped him talk to girls. That's one of the major points 1980s chronicler Sheffield makes in his work – that the music of this era has been derided partly because it had a feminine, and often a threateningly androgynous, patina.
The versions on Duncan Sheik Covers '80s reveal themselves as feminine in an even deeper way. A few, like the story of the ghost soldier returning home in New Order's "Love Vigilantes" or the voyeur in Japan's "Gentlemen Take Polaroids," confront how traps of masculinity damage or destroy real men. Most others aim for the kind of romanticism that's grounded not in posturing, but in the expression of vulnerability.
"I love you whether or not you love me," Sheik sings, resolved to the fact that the Howard Jones song is one most of us remember as kind of a goof. "I love you even if you think that I don't." Those words are utterly serious, though, and emotionally risky in a way we don't often hear in mainstream pop today. By foregrounding them in settings that allow listeners to relax and carefully consider them, Sheik allows for a new vision of a lost era. No nostalgia here, only genuine feeling, and the challenge to reconsider what might really be worth reviving.