Several months later, how does the popular trance DJ's "artist album" hold up?
Aah, yes. Another debut "artist album" from another superstar DJ. What does that make all those mix CDs that DJs put out -- kitsch? Anyhow, the difference, of course, is that Schulz is writing, producing, and performing all the music on Without You Near, instead of mixing and enhancing others'. Albums like this inevitably polarize a DJ's fanbase: Have they jumped the shark and created a multi-genre mess a'la Paul Oakenfold, or are they adding a legitimate creative wrinkle to their resume? Part of the difficulty is that Without You Near recontextualizes some of Schulz's previous 12" club hits dating back to the late '90s. But, taken without the baggage, it's a very good album with some surprisingly strong songs.
That very word, "songs", is problematic to some fans. It implies more traditional, radio-friendly arrangements. Guest vocalists. Choruses. All of that's true, but Schulz is still able to maintain the deep, melancholy atmosphere that's made him a dancefloor favorite. Without You Near is that rare trance album that achieves a genuine emotional resonance. That may not seem like much, but in a subgenre whose defining trait is synthesizers that sound like amplified kazoos, it is. For its first third, Without You Near is a breakup album, and a good one, too. Like too many "artist albums" these days, regardless of genre, it sags in the middle. But it finishes strong.
The creeping, minor-key bass and swells of pretty keyboards on "Clear Blue" establish Schulz’s musical template. Schulz is American, but his sound is highly European; the analog whale song that runs through the downtempo "Arial" recalls early OMD. Throughout, everything is clean and crisp without being chilly. Not a kick drum beat or snare hit is wasted.
The whole vocalist thing can kill albums like this, but the strongest tracks on Without You Near are the ones that have singers. In particular, UK veteran Anita Kelsey adds to the emotional range, coming across all little-girl-lost like Annie on "First Time" while playing the heartbroken yet defiant lover on the album’s strongest track, "Travelling Light". Here, she throws here beguiling brogue over pulsing electro-bass and mournful synths. They lyrics are strong, too: "I was turning the page before you could read", she sings, like a pre-crazy Sinead O’Connor.
Almost as good are the twinkling keyboards and general lovelorn sentiment of the title track. "How can you sit there watching someone else"? asks a synthesized Gabriel Dresden. Nothing suits trance like resigned astonishment, and this has it in spades. "Once Again", featuring the Sarah McLachlan-like Carrie Skipper, has a rousing chorus that McLachlan herself would be proud to write. This is music that works largely on its own terms, in spite of the trance / progressive house paradigm.
Not everything works that well. The midsection of the album interrupts the black celebration with a dull ballad and some run-of-the-mill electronica, the low point being "Peaches and Cream", which includes the line "She’s as salty as the sea". But by the time the album comes to a close with a slowed-down version of the title track that effectively employs muted guitar, you’re looking forward to artist album number two.
Without You Near has probably left part of Schulz’s hardcore constituency nonplussed. But the tradeoff is worth it, because Schulz has created something with allure that stretches much farther. It’s just good music that maintains its appeal over time.