"When everything is done / And everything is said / All the world is pain / It's better to be dead."
Duncan Sheik has made a career out of not pulling punches musically, culminating in the multiple-Tony-winning Spring Awakening, a musical drama about teen sexuality, hypocrisy, and Victorian morals. Because of that, he is one of the few musicians I consider qualified to handle the biggest question of all: Death, And What Happens Afterwards. And handle it he does on his latest offering, Whisper House -- the soundtrack to an as-yet-unproduced stage work, a collaboration between Sheik, Kyle Jarrow (A Very Merry Unauthorized Childrens' Scientology Pageant) and Keith Powell (30 Rock). Dark, dreamy, disturbing, Whisper House is the bastard offspring of Edward Gorey and Berthold Brecht, a Gothic poem about fear, death, reality, and persecution.
Needless to say -- but I'll say it anyway -- it's also pretty damned good.
Whisper House is the story of Christopher, whose father dies in World War II and whose mother becomes unbalanced as a result. Christopher goes to live with his Aunt Lily, who is a lighthouse keeper on the United States Atlantic coast, searching for German U-Boats. The lighthouse is haunted -- or is it? The ghosts, real or imagined, serve as a musical commentary on the drama of the living, people dealing with their wounds in a dark and paranoid time. (Much like now, interestingly enough. One of the multiple levels of Whisper House is an allegory on our world of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.)
The music is magnificent. Sheik is rapidly becoming one of the greatest composers out there, and his brooding melodies and lyrics fit the subject matter perfectly. (Sheik shares co-lyricist credit with Jarrow on several tracks, and they fit with the others seamlessly). Whisper House is richer than Sheik's past work, laden with a surprisingly well-suited brass and reed section (including a veritable festival of clarinets -- bass, contrabass, and something called a 'chalumeau'). Guest vocalist Holly Brook's voice is chilling and precise. From the opening bars of "It's Better To Be Dead" through the closing "Take A Bow," Whisper House never lets go of the listener. I have listened to this CD probably fifty times since I got it, and I continue to hear new things every time. I didn't think that Sheik could top Spring Awakening -- and I was wrong.
Whisper House is both a parable for our dark days, a reminiscence of dark days in the past, and an eternal musing on the darkest topic of all -- the final curtain call that in the end, we all have to face alone. I can't come up with words to describe, in the end, just how good it is. Don't miss it.