There are so many sensitive singer-songwriter types putting records out these days that you have to do something really different to stand out. I feel hardened saying it, but gorgeousness just isn’t enough any more.
If you want to mix electronica with your acoustic ballads, there are bands who’ve taken it all the way in their own ways (Psapp, some Kinobe) and those who’ve almost perfected the melding of the two (Syd Matters, for one). Thom Yorke is the godfather of this whole scene—you get the sense of there being hordes of musicians who can’t quite find it in themselves to be as alienated and as absolute as Yorke, but are desperately wishing that they could.
Catch you in the right mood, and the opening “1978”, a gentle synth arpeggio-driven instrumental, can totally sweep you away. So simple, its electric piano melody repeats, building the soundtrack to a desolate field over a shuffling beat recalling the Au Revoir Simone song “Through the Backyards”. The same percussive effect is used on a number of songs throughout the album, most successfully on “Sleeping Song”, and the drum machine sound doesn’t satisfy the same way live drums could. Still, it captures the mood well enough.
The best song on the album is the first single, “Weeping Willow”. The video shows Schuller walking around with a white paper mask over his face, a single tear drawn on in black marker. The image finds its way onto the CD’s cover, too. Well, it’s an accurate encapsulation of the artist’s emotional resonance: sorrow, loneliness, desolation under a cloudy sky. Lost in an unforgiving city. Fun stuff like that. “Weeping Willow”, though, is genuinely great: Schuller’s lisping, thin tenor voice is incomparably fragile, and precious—you can’t help caring it seems so easily hurt.
Though he’s got an easy gift of melody, Schuller’s low-key approach to songwriting sometimes lacks the strong hooks that create immediate interest. For every “Sleeping Song” (gorgeous, linked phrases, intoxicating atmosphere) there’s a “Ride Along the Cliff” (turned-down Air impression, passable). Radiohead is obviously a key influence, as closer “Le Dernier Jour” illustrates, being basically a low-key “No Surprises” impression, making you reflect how easily compelling music can slip into irrelevance. The excursions into purer electronica sounds (“Where We Had Never Gone”, e.g.) also seem a little half-hearted. The artist’s voice is his biggest asset, and the most compelling element of Schuller’s sound, so twisting it out of recognition with echoes doesn’t really work.
On the whole, though, Schuller’s music achieves a simple sort of emotional resonance. He’s firmly within-genre, and there’s really only so much melancholy electro-tinged singer-songwriter we can take. But if you’re in the market, well, Sebastien Schuller gets the job done as well as anyone. If you’re really not careful, you could let the Play-era Moby-esque looping acoustic fairytale sounds whip you up into texting an ex-girlfriend, say, asking them out for a drink. That’s a terrible idea; listening to Happiness, not such a bad idea at all.