Destined to be remembered as a one-hit wonder, Duncan Sheik boosted his profile in a big way as the co-composer of 2007’s acclaimed Broadway musical Spring Awakening. But Sheik’s latest record, the awkwardly titled Covers 80s, does little to showcase the gift for compelling arrangements and memorable melodies that made both “Barely Breathing” and Spring Awakening such hits. Instead, the album takes some fantastic tracks from the titular decade and makes them outright boring.
What impresses most about Covers 80s is Sheik’s unassailable taste in ‘80s music. The original versions of the songs he’s assembled here would make for one hell of a mixtape. Tears for Fears’s “Shout” and Thompson Twins’s “Hold Me Now” are the record’s most obvious choices for cover tunes, with the remainder fleshed out by some fantastic minor hits and more obscure cuts from the Blue Nile, Psychedelic Furs, and Japan.
The problem is that Sheik has taken such a mellow, low-key approach to Covers 80s that his arrangements simply lack the spark that made Love and Rockets’s “So Alive” and New Order’s “Love Vigilante” worth listening to in the first place. The album rarely kicks the tempo above a plodding dirge, and the heavy reverb and chamber-pop instrumentation would put Norah Jones and the Low Anthem right to sleep. A glockenspiel and jarring banjo break straight out of Sufjan Stevens’s playbook fail to enliven Sheik’s rendition of Depeche Mode’s “Stripped,” and the lite-calypso backing given to both the Blue Nile’s “Stay” and the Smiths’ “William, It Was Really Nothing” is inexplicable and doesn’t work for either song.
Sheik has a strong voice with a distinctive, unusual timbre, but he rarely puts that to use here. His readings of “So Alive” and Howard Jones’s “What Is Love” are so sleepy that they could put Ambien’s manufacturer out of business. But for a couple of bursts of squelchy feedback, the record sounds like the work of a cruise ship’s lounge band. There’s something to be said for an album having a consistent tone and atmosphere, but Covers 80s leans so heavily on its wispy, ghostly arrangements that it does a disservice to Sheik’s voice and to the great set of songs he’s chosen to cover.