Uneven and frustrating, thoughtful and intricate, the strangely titled ‘Claptrap’ contains enough compelling and memorable moments to rejuvenate the interest in longtime, but perhaps dormant Duncan Sheik fans.
Stream: ‘Claptrap’ – Duncan Sheik
And one could, if one was so inclined, write at length about the idea of toxicity as depicted in contemporary popular music – specifically, toxic masculinity. But that’s not what this is about; not entirely.
And this would have been at least five years ago, when I was struck by the concept of looking at pop song lyrics through an intersectional lens. And there is a danger to doing this; simply because the more you find yourself analyzing, there is the risk you may, perhaps, tarnish a song you once held dear, because you find the conceit of it is now difficult to reconcile.
This has not exactly happened for me — not yet, with songs I truly once held dear. But more with songs representative of the zeitgeist of a different time.
And the first time this happened, I had not intentionally sought out a song — the song in question well over 20 years old at this point — to listen through this kind of analytic. It happened by accident.
I used to spend a lot of my work days in a relatively small, shared workspace. By all accounts, it was “their” space — my co-workers, in an entirely different department than I was — and I was just there. I was not unwelcome — not exactly, but within this relatively small, shared workspace, I had been given, like, the bare minimum amount of room needed to complete the tasks I needed to.
My co-workers — it was their space, after all — were almost always in control of what music played while we were working together, taking turns plugging the aux cord into their phones, and meticulously picking the soundtrack for part of the day. The tastes, as a whole, were extraordinary in their eclecticism—some days, you could hear Backstreet Boys or a compilation of hits from the Disco era; other days, you would hear the abrasive, throbbing rhythms of festival headlining dubstep producers.
At other times of the day, you would hear the smattering of what could, for the ease of argument, be called “alternative rock” from the 1990s.
And I had not thought about the song “The Distance,” by the band Cake, in several years until I heard it playing off of a co-worker’s phone, from one of his Pandora Radio stations. The song, initially released in the autumn of 1996, was inescapable if you were of the MTV-watching generation at the time — the seemingly right blend of infectious pop songwriting and oddball arranging and instrumentation; it was not until I heard the song, enough times, enough days out of the week, in the year 2017, that its lyrics, or, like, the heart of what it is about, hit me.
It would have been, roughly, between the lyrics about the song’s protagonist thinking of someone “for who he still burns,” and about the woman in the song “hoping in time that her memory will fade,” that I realized “The Distance” is about toxic masculinity.
But this is not about the band Cake, or their song “The Distance.” And it is only tangentially about the notion of toxic masculinity in pop music, because once you hear a song this way, it is difficult to stop yourself from doing it.
This is mostly about Duncan Sheik.
There is an episode from the first season of “True Detective” where Woody Harrelson’s character chides Matthew McConaughey’s character for tossing around, what he calls “ten-dollar words.” And out of all the things that have stuck with me from the first season of “True Detective” — even more so than the phrase “Time is A Flat Circle,” or calling someone “The Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch” — it’s the idea of a “ten dollar word.”
A word that, perhaps, you use to make yourself appear more intelligent than you actually are.
And I am guilty, of course, as many writers are, of peppering their work, as they are able, with words that they might not feel confident enough to use in conversation, but are able to sell within their writing.
And one of the words I think of, when I think of a “ten dollar word,” is legerdemain.
Several years ago, I used to write a monthly column that ran on the final page of an arts and culture publication. My editor often wanted it to be a humor column, but the longer I was writing it for, and the further I was sinking into a severe depression, the harder it became for me to find a way to make it funny. And I do not remember the context — why I would have even used the word legerdemain in the first place, but I did, and I can remember somebody who read the column approaching me to inquire about the word — not why I had used it, but that she had never heard of it prior to then, and had to look up its definition.
And until the autumn of 2015, I had also never heard of the word, and also needed to look up its definition to confirm I was using it within the correct context, managing to shoehorn it into my column to make me appear more intelligent than I am.
Legerdemain, a noun, is defined as a skillful use of one’s hands when performing conjuring tricks.
A sleight of hand.
But this is not really about ten-dollar words; not really.
To my knowledge, the first time I saw the word used was as the title to the eighth studio album (seventh of original material) by Duncan Sheik.
Stream: ‘Legerdemain’ – Duncan Sheik
And I hesitate to refer to Duncan Sheik as a one-hit wonder, because of the implications that come along in terms of a gradual fading into obscurity, or simply no longer being an active performer after being unable to replicate an unprecedented success.
The truth is that Sheik, following the popularity of the single “Barely Breathing,” taken from his 1996, self-titled debut album, could not achieve that level of pop music opulence again. And I get the impression that he, perhaps, did not want to do so.
As a fan, and listener, of Sheik’s pop canon for 25 years, it is relatively easy to reflect on just how restless of an artist he became almost immediately after the release of his debut — he turned inward, musically speaking, for his following two albums: 1998’s moody, introspective, and lushly arranged Humming and 2001’s breathtaking, Nick Drake-inspired Phantom Moon — Sheik wrote the music (almost entirely acoustic and even more temperamental and more introspective), but his friend Steven Sater, a playwright and poet, wrote the album’s lyrics.
Signed to the Warner Bros. subsidiary Atlantic Records at the time, Phantom Moon, apparently deemed too uncommercial (whoever deemed it that way was not wrong), was released through a different Warner Bros. imprint, Nonesuch — the label that, roughly a year later, Wilco would find a home on for the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. In the autumn of 2002, Sheik delivered his final album for Atlantic: The bright, slick, surprisingly pop-leaning Daylight.
Within the last two decades, Sheik has continued to infrequently record studio albums — four years after the release of Daylight, he returned with White Limousine, a dense, dark, and at times, politically charged record that had been at least partially scrapped when he lost confidence in the electronic influence and instrumentation he originally wrote and began recording it with. He would follow that up nine years later with the sprawling, restless, and self-released Legerdemain.
To the generation who grew up watching music videos on VH1 or listening to Top 40 radio, Sheik is known for “Barely Breathing,” despite whatever efforts he would put into distancing himself from it.
To a generation that was, perhaps, a few years younger, he is known for his work on the extremely successful Broadway musical Spring Awakening, which he co-wrote with Sater. A long-gestating project between the duo, the show gained traction quickly, heading into production both off and on Broadway in 2006, which forced Sheik to scrap his tour in support of White Limousine.
And one could make the argument, if one were so inclined, that like Sheik’s success early on with “Barely Breathing,” which went unmatched in the years that followed, the trajectory of his theatrical endeavors has been similar. Following the nearly instant popularity of Spring Awakening, three years later, Sheik attempted to merge both of his interests—pop music and musical stage productions, with the release of Whisper House, a concept album featuring lyrics penned by Sater, serving as the score for a yet to be launched musical of the same name—the production, limited, was staged in both a workshop through Vassar College, then again in San Diego at The Old Globe Theatre.
And in the 16 years that have elapsed since the original staging and success of Spring Awakening, Sheik has been involved in myriad productions, often with Sater, including an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Kate DiCamillo’s children’s novel Because of Winn-Dixie, and the polarizing, controversial Brett Easton Ellis novel American Psycho—all of which saw varying limited runs in production.
I am uncertain how long I have been following Duncan Sheik for on social media — active enough on Twitter, but because of the algorithm, I see his updates from Instagram much more often, and it would have been roughly five months ago when Sheik began the slow, gradual rollout to his new album — his first since 2015. While it is technically his ninth studio outing, it is his seventh full-length of originals, unrelated to his theatrical endeavors.
In May, along with releasing the second advance single from the album, he revealed the title.
And I am hesitant to say that “claptrap” is the antithesis of a ten-dollar word, but I simply do not know what kind of word it is—or what kind of value rooted in intelligence it might have for someone who uses it in a sentence correctly.
Similar to the word legerdemain, claptrap is a noun, and is defined simply as “absurd or nonsensical talk or ideas.”
And it is, perhaps, difficult for me to articulate why I do not so much “take issue” with the album’s title — Duncan Sheik, a grown man of 52 years, nearly half of those he’s spent writing and performing songs, can name his album whatever he wants.
I do not so much “take issue,” but it gives me reason to pause. I raise an eyebrow. The same way, even though I legitimately love some of their songs, I pause and raise an eyebrow at the band name Death Cab For Cutie.
The word itself — claptrap — is nearly a manifestation of its definition.
Absurd. Nonsensical. It is a word that, in its two syllables and unavoidable rhyme, I struggle to take seriously, or to appreciate whatever sense of humor went into selecting it as the title for the record.
Initially slated for a late June release date, then July, and now arriving at the end of August, Claptrap finds Sheik returning to a similar sonic palate to the one he worked within on his previous studio outing — it is an amalgamation (sometimes extremely successful in execution; other times, admittedly less so) of the adult contemporary, acoustic leaning, singer-songwriter instrumentation and song structure that Sheik began his career with and is still, despite his best efforts, firmly rooted in, juxtaposed with the electronic flourishes and often dense textures from the kind of music, or sound, he has an interest in and has been attempting to find the right ways to include into his output for well over a decade.
Sheik, no longer bound to a recording contract for a specified number of albums to be delivered to a label, did not have to make Claptrap; it is an album he wanted to—or felt moved to create.
It’s a late-career record that manages to sidestep becoming an outing of primarily diminishing returns. However, it is, at least upon initial listens, not as inherently immediate as some of his earlier albums were. Musically, it is an extremely restless album, simply because of the way he pulls from two different aesthetics; and when a song’s arranging works, it really works — but there are enough times when it doesn’t work, resulting in moments that puzzle and begin to test listener patience.
Perhaps most interesting about Claptrap as a whole is how you can hear the inevitable maturation in Sheik’s voice. It’s noticeably lower in register now, and even though his recorded output over the last 20 years has been somewhat infrequent, Sheik knows what to do with and how to use his voice—he never pushes it past the range he can still reach. Though the songs featured on Claptrap do not often call for it, when it is required, he can still make it soar to staggering heights, which you can hear him do with surprising confidence on the album’s second track, “Isn’t it So.”
In listening intently to Claptrap, the word I found myself using in notes about the album a surprising number of times was “groove.” I am remiss to refer to a bulk of these songs as having a sense of ease to them, musically speaking, but even from the moment, it opens with the pandemic-inspired “Experience,” there is a relaxed, or kind of restrained nature that you can hear in how all of the elements (and often, there are a lot of layers within these songs) tumble together. Sheik returns to this kind of groove—slinking, at times a little playful sounding, again, on both “There’s No Telling,” and “Smoke and Mirrors.”
And I am uncertain how best to describe these songs — the ones that fall into having a groove, and teeter into borderline funk adjacent or lite jazz territory; it isn’t that they aren’t well put together in terms of their musical structure. Not at all. It’s just that in their seemingly reserved, or somewhat quiet nature, they are among the album’s least impactful.
In its unevenness, or difficulties finding the right balance between the electronic and the more traditional “singer-songwriter” instrumentation, Claptrap’s density and intricacies are extremely admirable. Sheik’s stable of synthesizer tones is consummate—he shared a photo earlier this summer of the Juno-106 he has owned since he was a teenager, and is featured heavily throughout the record. The synthetic, electronic textures never sound antiquated exactly, but there are moments where the bridge between both sounds, or stylistics, is unable to be completed, or completed in a way that isn’t off-putting—e.g., “Good to Know,” which arrives in the final third of the record. Opening with moody acoustic guitar and a jazzy, delicate electric guitar over the top, the sonic shifts come quickly—even before the one-minute mark, a dusty-sounding drum machine begins clicking underneath everything, and shortly thereafter, everything is replaced by a low, buzzy sounding synth.
And even as Sheik tries his best to get all of the different elements to work together—live percussion eventually replacing the drum machine rhythm, etc., it, like several other tunes on Claptrap, are impressively layered, but are often doing entirely too much.
There was a time, early on, when I was writing about music, when I was much more casual in the way I wrote, and addressed the readers—often using a sense of humor I lost several years ago.
There was a time when the things I was writing were much shorter in length.
My analysis of Legerdemain was one of those pieces.
At less than 900 words total, and published the day after the album’s release in October of 2015, in it, I refer to Sheik as once looking like a “floppy-haired, button-down shirt spokesperson” based on the photo that graced the front of his self-titled debut, and in my reflection of Legerdemain’s still puzzling cover image, I said, “My pal looks like he’s ‘bout to walk through the Stargate, or some shit, you know?”
My takeaway from Legerdemain, after, perhaps, one listen through the album — maybe two if I made the time, was that it was a risk given how it attempted to blend Sheik’s musical past with his interest in electronic-tinged sounds, and that, despite a few stumbles it found its pacing, and that the risk paid off to create a “captivating, exciting, and thoughtful listen.”
There was a time, early on when I was writing about music, when I think it was not as difficult as it has been within the last few years to—I stop short of saying “find nice things to say” about an album, but I believe in the past, when I did not spend nearly as much time analyzing an album before even sitting down to write, and was able to make somewhat generalized, more positive statements about a record rather than…not picking it apart exactly, but not immersing myself in it the way I do now, and have been doing, in order to see it for what it is, and see all of it.
And the question I find I am asking myself is when was the last time I listened to not just any Duncan Sheik—Phantom Moon, specifically, is an album I regularly return to as a whole, but an album like Legerdemain, as exciting, captivating, and thoughtful as I once considered it to be.
The date listed as the time the files in my iTunes library were “last modified” alleges that I listened to the album near the end of 2020—which partially makes sense, because as the year came to an end, Sheik digitally released a live album—Live at The Carlyle Cafe, a set recorded in 2017.
I started seriously listening to Duncan Sheik’s output in 1999 or 2000 after snagging used copies of both his self-titled debut and its follow-up, Humming, so his career has been one I still make a concerted effort to follow—I may not, over 20 years later, return to a lot of his albums or tunes, but there is still an interest to know what he is up to, or listen if he has put together something new.
And with an artist that one has followed for as long as I have followed Sheik, there is a slight risk with late-career releases that they will not be as impactful as albums from the past were—albums that, perhaps, found me at the right time, or in some cases, albums that have grown with me through time as my tastes have shifted.
Regardless of how my tastes may have, in fact, shifted, w/r/t Duncan Sheik, there were at least two moments from Legerdemain that resonated enough with me over the last seven years—the swirling, smoldering, and sprawling “Circles,” and, specifically, one lyric within the song “Distant Lover” — “I’m a difficult boy with a difficult mother,” which retrospectively, was the first time I perhaps felt seen and attacked—and recognized it—by a pop song.
And regardless of how my tastes or interests might have, in fact, shifted, there are also two moments from Claptrap that were the most resonant of the album’s 12 tracks.
Something that Sheik has always done well, and still does well when the opportunity presents itself on Claptrap is the dramatic — it makes sense that he would pivot into writing music for the stage with this kind of flair for the theatrical. And this drama he conjures arrives in different sizes, and with different pacing—using the slow burn and gradual swell early on in the record with the build-up on “Isn’t It So,” but it really works as it unfolds in the album’s centerpiece, “You’ll Never Be Alone.”
The song begins not with contrasting synthesizer lines, but there are at least three sounds at work, coming together as “You’ll Never Be Alone” opens. One, quieter and more atmospheric than the other two, another lower in tone and creating a rhythm, and the final, twinkling delicately and somewhat slowly above.
“There is a chance today I will avert disaster,” Sheik sings in the opening line as live drums arrive—somewhat gently and creating slightly more of a structured rhythm for the song to follow. “There is a chance today I will recognize there’s nothing to do unless I want to do it.” Lyrically, presumably inspired by the restlessness, uncertainty, and strain of living through the last two years, “You’ll Never Be Alone” continues to build into an anthem that becomes about glimpses, no matter how small, of hope and reassurance.
And on their own, the lyrics to “You’ll Never Be Alone,” specifically as the song arrives at its halfway point, before it surprisingly explodes (complete with a chugging electric guitar sound to indicate that something is about to happen), are a little self-aware and more than a little cloying—Sheik stringing together a series of lines that all end in words that rhyme. It isn’t lazy songwriting—it is honestly a little impressive actually, regardless of how cringey some of it comes out, as he manages to make his way through “known,” “alone,” “sewn,” “stone,” “bones,” “undertones,” zone,” and “own,” before ending with, “It’s why I’m singing in the microphone.”
It is puzzling to me, and in some cases, a little irritating, that with the way that music is typically consumed now — through streaming services via a laptop or phone — the notion of the hidden track, or an “unlisted track,” presented the same way now as it was on a compact disc, is something that continues to occur.
The hidden track—a relic of a different time. The unlisted track—the thrill of the mystery when you wondered what you might find when the final track on a CD didn’t end at the song’s conclusion, but it kept going with a yet-to-be-determined amount of silence before either surprising you or disappointing you.
Of Duncan Sheik’s original run of four records released through a major label or major label adjacent imprint, two of them have hidden tracks—“Foreshadowing,” pensive and sincere, is tucked after the conclusion of Humming, and the glitchy, slow-burning “Chimera” comes shortly after the final song of Daylight.
One of the advance singles from Claptrap, and one of the more interested and successfully executed tunes from the record, is a follow-up of sorts—“Chimera II (Safe and Sound)” takes the unrelenting synthesizer programming and oscillation from the original and transposes it for sparse acoustic guitar and a cavernous sounding upright piano. Accompanied by subtle atmospheric flourishes, it is this kind of arranging where Sheik as a singer and performer still thrives—not weighed down by the bombast or collisions of opposing aesthetics, and working within a tender space, at times gorgeous, and regularly haunting.
Lyrically, “Chimera II” creates a place for Sheik to be his most evocative in terms of the humanized imagery he uses. Like other moments throughout Claptrap, presumably inspired partly by how daily life shifted so drastically over the last two years, there is a terrible sense of uncertainty as the song begins.
“One eye opened in morning light,” he begins in a quieter, slightly breathier register. “Mother and child and I, we made it through another night.”
And within that uncertainty, Sheik then turns the lyrics further inward to a place that isn’t quite self-effacing, but relatively close. “It’s late, late in the day, but better to see. The whole world brighter when naught to do with me.”
What I am uncertain of is if, during those days in a shared workspace, with my co-workers in control of the music I would hear, on any of the “alternative rock” stations — often favoring somewhat similarly minded acts like Better Than Ezra and Tonic – we came across Duncan Sheik.
And if we, in fact, came across Duncan Sheik and listened to the song “Barely Breathing,” if it was in that moment when I was able to first hear the song through a different pair of ears from when I had first heard it in 1997, as a sullen, overweight middle schooler who had an unrequited crush.
“Barely Breathing” is infectious, yes, and it is a well-assembled song, but its lyrics, now over 25 years old, are steeped in a terrible, toxic sense of entitlement from heartbreak, but it is not the worst offender on Sheik’s self-titled debut, which I tried, and was unable to, revisit in earnest in anticipation of Claptrap, because what I had forgotten about was the saccharine, “friend zone” lament of the swooning “In The Absence of Sun,” where Sheik croons, “I don’t want to feel this way. I don’t want to say I’m just a friend. I don’t want to wait around here ‘cause you don’t want to feel no pain again.”
Then, later, “I don’t want to be the one denied — it ain’t no fault of mine that someone, somewhere, told you lies.”
I also forgot how Sheik’s self-titled outing concludes — the brooding, embittered, breakup woe “Little Hands.”
Sheik was 27 when his self-titled debut was released, and even before he turned 30, with the release of Humming, he slowly began moving away from the kind of lyricism steeped in toxic masculinity. Now in his early 50s, in a committed relationship, and a father, overlooking the moments on Claptrap where Sheik overextends the use of a rhyme, lyrically, a bulk of Claptrap’s inspiration and intent comes from Sheik’s practice of Nichiren Buddhism and the idea of “non-duality,” specifically within Buddhism.
And there were a few months in the spring of 2021 when I found myself writing about the idea of duality—at least, a kind of duality that I could apply to contemporary popular music. A duality, or a “multitudinous nature” that I could identify within the album itself, or within the intent of the artist responsible for the music.
The philosophy of non-duality, though, is not something I had ever heard of, or considered, until Sheik began writing about it in Instagram updates regarding the album, and the process of writing and recording it.
I hesitate to refer to non-duality, in this context, as Claptrap’s ten-dollar word, but it is a difficult concept to wrap your head around if you are not versed (well or otherwise) in Eastern philosophy and spiritual teachings. A cursory online search reveals that non-duality is a “fuzzy concept,” and is perhaps digestibly described as the “recognition that underlying the multiplicity and diversity of experience, there is a single, infinite, and indivisible reality.” On Instagram, Sheik has shared the titles of several books on the idea—books that, like the concept itself, helped shape the theme within the album.
Similarly to the restlessness found musically across Sheik’s canonical work, but especially on Claptrap in terms of the attempts to bridge the gap formed between electronic instrumentation with a more organic, traditional sound, there is a restless feeling—often non-linear in how it winds up being structured, within his lyricism which stems from the tumult of living day to day through the last two years of uncertainty.
The album’s opening track, “Experience,” is more than likely a song that Sheik wrote early on during the pandemic, just based on the lyricism and themes alone. “People always asking me, ‘How’s it going, man?,’” he begins in the first line. “I try to answer that—they don’t understand. It takes too long.”
And then there is a song like “Maybe,” which comes from a place of discovery and gratitude instead of frustration and unease. As Sheik explained, when the song was released as a single a few months ago, during the summer of 2020, he realized that at the time, and more, he was free to do whatever he wanted to all day in his studio space. “This feeling was followed by some real, actual gratitude,” he said in a short post on Instagram regarding the song. “It was not the forced gratitude that I was being compelled to feel by people around me telling me to be grateful for what I had. It was something very different; a recognition that maybe the universal consciousness we are all part of is, as Rupert Spira says without irony, love.”
Roughly two decades ago, I was in my second year of college. I didn’t have a car of my own, so to do errands—often trips to Target or the shopping mall in the small, midwestern town where I went to school, I would have to tag along with someone else, or convince them to cart me around.
And this would have, of course, been a Tuesday afternoon—the day new releases arrived in stores, and while I do not recall what else I might have put on the conveyor belt at the checkout at Target, I can remember purchasing a copy of Duncan Sheik’s Daylight.
I am dating myself, perhaps, by waxing nostalgic for a time when going to a store — a record store, or otherwise, on a Tuesday afternoon, to pick up a brand new release, was something to anticipate.
I am dating myself, perhaps, by recalling when Sheik, still signed to a major label and eight years removed from his self-titled debut, would be the kind of artist that would be easily found on the “New Release” end cap at Target.
Perhaps you and I are similar in the way that you, maybe like me, are the kind of person who finds themselves thinking about something “all of the time” — perhaps it is some pop culture obscurity that you return to with some regularity for one reason or another. Or, perhaps it is a song from your past—or a specific part of a song that often drifts into your head.
Duncan Sheik, as a performer who has released several albums, is not an artist that I find myself sitting down and listening to regularly. However, a number of his songs — specific moments of specific songs — are things I find myself thinking about all the time, like the swelling and earnest dramatics of the chorus to “Hymn,” the sweeping closing track to 2006’s White Limousine, or the terribly fragile, beautiful arrangement to his cover of The Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You.”
There is some small comfort in Sheik releasing a new album. As an artist, even if I may not return to his canonical output regularly, and even if I have not entirely kept up as well as I could have with his latter-day works, I am grateful for the simple knowledge that he is still, as he is able, interested in writing and recording, regardless of the other endeavors he has taken on.
Claptrap is a dense and complex album both in its conceit, and in the intricate layers of sound, it has been constructed with.
It may lack the immediacy of Sheik’s older pop albums, but for a longtime fan, it is worth the effort and time that it might take to find your way into its thoughtfulness.
Stream: ‘Claptrap’ – Duncan Sheik
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