The Schnauss-sound is magnificent. Long strips of gilded harmony, ethereal, reverb-soaked voices and infectious synth-hooks floating over huge, motorik stereo-panned drums. The occasional chime polishes an edge to a shimmer, a shining gong re-washes the sound in gold, a mooning piano announces its fragility. It is thick and rich and booming, whilst pretty and delicate, playing on the tension between twinkling lights and epic expansiveness. It is a magical sound and one that far transcends the sum of its references; still, Schnauss is an allusive writer, no review would be complete without a trawl through his inspirators.
The obvious Kraut-comparisons have been made many times regarding Schnauss’s drum-programming, and it’s true, the insistent frill-free pounding (so refreshingly not the fiddling jiggery-pokery of the glitch-nuts) does imbue the music with some of the driving quality of Neu! and Can. Neu! ’75 might be a particular influence on certain sublime melodic passages, but the sheer euphoria of the material on this album sets Schnauss apart from these illustrious ancestors. The Cocteau Twins is another name oft-mentioned in the same breath as Schnauss’s, but whilst he shares their penchant for the submerged, barely intelligible vocal and for walls of harmony, where they are lace and graveyards, Schnauss is bronzed flesh and beaches. Possibly the greatest spiritual presence on Goodbye are Schnauss’s beloved shoegazers, but though his reverence for Slowdive, Chapterhouse and the like is evident throughout in the work’s pace and veneration of the blissful, Goodbye attains a level of ecstasy that lay just out of reach of these bands’ grasp. There are several reasons for this. One is, simply, that the shoegazers lacked the equipment. Technological advances clearly have assisted Schnauss’s trademark booming drum sound and the warm reverb that infuses the whole album.
More importantly though, it is Schnauss’s gift for writing cyclical harmonic patterns that seem never to resolve. It’s this and his masterful handling of reverb, that create the album’s distinctive ebb and swell, the apparent lack of cadence that keeps us breathlessly involved. There is the odd crashing wave, but for the most part, there are no sudden changes in dynamic in Goodbye, rather, there is the gradual accumulation then depletion of layers of reverb which, married to the lack of resolution in the harmony, engenders a subtle hair-pinning of suspense. This kind of suspense-engineering via harmonic irresolution recalls Wagner. A mighty name to wield, but not inappropriate; indeed, the grandiosity of Schnauss’s music, the scale of his vision also invoke the operatic maestro. There are those who object to Wagner’s opera for its sentimentality. Similar criticism may be leveled at Goodbye. One of the things that distances Schnauss from his peers is the humanness of its emotion. Far from squealing robots and bubbling test-tubes, Goodbye sounds at first listen like the memory of an incendiary summer love affair, blurred into a single, long, luscious ecstasy. It is the sound of love. Indeed, the earnestness of Goodbye‘s soul-bearing can be over-powering sometimes, and if you are feeling self-conscious, even embarrassing, like a stranger telling you he is in love with you in the middle of a crowded metro.
Yet if you listen closer, there is sadness in the album too. On “Stars” for example, a woman’s voice, barely decipherable, sings “Losing with every step I take, Losing with every move I make”. Under the joy, then, there is an undercurrent of pain and loss, almost swamped and left forgotten in the ecstatic surge. Later, she sings: “Will you remember, or will you forget?” her voice, struggling to make itself heard, points to the unreliability of memory, its tendency to glamorise the past and to smudge over painful episodes. The title too, of course, resonates with the inherent sorrow of valediction – and even comes to signify death. For the penultimate track on the album is called “Goodbye” and the following “For Good”. Perhaps then we should listen to Goodbye as a life flashing before our eyes at the moment of death. A rushing memory of a life that subsumes the pain and sadness of experience into a general texture of joy, the joy of having existed. If Goodbye is about a love affair, it is a love affair with life itself. Well, perhaps.
Take from it what you will, Goodbye is a gorgeous triumph, and it sounds like one. A triumph of simplicity over pretension, of melody and harmony over pops and clicks and of the humane over the elusive. Ulrich Schnauss scales his ecstatic heights with the confidence of a man who knows that what he does makes the world grow brighter.