A darkwave epic: The Sparrows and the Nightingales – Wolfsheim

In an earlier article on this blog, I already introduce the attentive readers to German synthpop/darkwave duo Wolfsheim. The duo consisted of vocalist Peter Heppner and synths player Markus Reinhardt and has existed for almost 20 years, being a prominent act within the German scene during the nineties and the first decade of the new millennium, with succesful songs such as "Künstliche Welten" (the extremely autistic song which has featured on this blog before), "Kein Weg zurück", "Find you’re gone", "Find you’re here", "Once in a lifetime" and more. The duo ended collaborations after Heppner persued a solo carreer, which lead to a lawsuit from Reinhardt against Heppner. Since then the band, obviously, is on a hiatus without guarantee that the two will ever forget the bitter end and start off again. Heppner however indicated that despite everything that happened, he doesn’t consider Wolfsheim to be over. So there is hope we will hear their beautiful music live again someday… even if it may be only a glance of hope.

I will now discuss their second epic song, "The Sparrows and the Nightingales". This song was their breakthrough and due to its dark sound and sombre theme and its eerie yet highly artistic black and white video, it was also this song which made Wolfsheim a prominent act in gothic clubs and festivals, even when the band was in fact way too diverse to classify them as a gothic act.

The Sparrows and the Nightingales is a song about feeling lost, not knowing where your life is heading. The lyrics describe how the narrator is not knowing where life is heading, which path to follow in life, using highly metaphorical language by using contrasts during a lot of stanzas of the over 6 minutes lengthy epic (PS: for TV-friendly reasons, the video cuts a few stanzas and shortens the song to approx. 3.5 minutes only). Examples are "How long have you been free in this world of ice and greed? Is it black or is it white? Let’s find another compromise. And our future’s standing still, we’re dancing in the spotlight" from the first stanza, or "Remember that we both were young and reckless and so curious. Now you’re heading from your child" from the second stanza.

A very important re-occuring line is the end of each stanza, bridging the stanzas to the chorus, "Where’s the leader who leads me? I’m still waiting… Leaving home", emphasising the despair of the narrator, looking for a person to guide him and show him the way that he cannot find himself.

The chorus uses religious language, therefor probably indicating that the narrator being lost is looking for spiritual answers as in his earthly surroundings he cannot find any way or any person that can put his life back in the right direction. The chorus repeats the line "God is on your side" each time, but again uses highly contradicting language in each repetition of the chorus:

"God is on your side, dividing sparrows from the nightingales
Watching all the time, dividing water from the burning fire… inside"

"God is on your side, dividing presence from our history
Watching all the time, dividing deaf men from the listening ones"

etc.

The contrasts seem to reflect a good side as opposed to something with a negative, more helpless or more dangerous undertone.

The last stanza probably puts the song in its final direction. The narrator still has not found the peace, the security and the path to follow, and has still not found the mentor and the guiding hand to show him the direction. With despair he beholds the cruel reality, again described in highly poetic contradicting style:

"Move in circles, walk in lines
No human being in sight
Calm the winds and calm the seas
Let’s try another kind of peace
And our future’s standing still, we’re dancing in the spotlight"

However, and here it becomes really a bit eerie, the end re-occuring line "Where’s the leader who leads me? I’m still waiting" is repeated a last time, this time translated in the band’s native German:
"Wo ist der Führer der mich führt? Ich warte immer noch"

While a very literate translation, the undertone changes completely for those knowing a bit of German history. "Führer" was the title usually used in the Germany under nazi rule to point to Adolf Hitler. Since the fall of the nazi regime, the term "Führer" has a very negative undertone in Germany, as it still is associated with Hitler. I don’t believe Wolfsheim just for no reason repeated the line about searching a helping hand, a leader to guide you, in German instead of in English. Rather my guess is that the narrator, after searching his answers in religion, now is an easy prey for those with mala fide intentions, trying to be your guide and monitor but meanwhile abusing you for their own bad agenda. The guide, the helping hand the narrator is still looking for, is not found in daily life nor in religion, and his last hope lies in the hands of someone who pretends to be a helping hand but in fact is only after abusing the narrator. I can see no other explanation for translating the line to German and using the term Führer otherwise, especially not when hearing the last chorus repetition following the line:

"And God is on your side dividing soldiers from the fisherman
Watching all the time, dividing washes from the ferryboats"

The military metaphors following the use of the German term "Führer" is just too much to be a coincidence. It gives the story a very eerie undertone in the end, but the story as a whole makes perfect sense and the conclusion is that the narrator, lost in life and desperate for finding the path to follow and for finding the mentor to point him in the right direction and answer his questions in life, is simply not finding the answers he is looking for all the time.

The sombre subject of the song, combined with the cold synthesiser sounds and the goth-like subject of emotional disintegration and feeling lost, have made this song (which dates from 1991 and was one of Wolfsheim’s first outings) a classic in goth clubs around Germany and abroad, and have made Wolfsheim associated with the goth and darkwave scene for the rest of their existance. A blessing and a curse at the same time, because few bands immediately start off with an epic song making such an impact that it makes them reach stardom within their own style at first attempt. Wolfsheim was a famous respected act from their first efford onwards. The other side of the coin, is that there is no such thing as "their style" as the band is way too diverse to be associated with only the gothic and darkwave scene. Songs such as "Übers Jahr", "Kein Weg zurück", "Casting Shadows" and the previously reviewed song "Künstliche Welten" (to name a few examples only) prove how diverse this band has been throughout its existance. Sadly enough, for some people, Wolfsheim will always be that gothic/darkwave band who rose to fame immediately with their first hit "The Sparrows and the Nightingales". I guess each coin has two sides.

I can of course not finalise this writing without paying attention to the music video that accompanies this masterpiece, because the video is as brilliant as the song itself. Just like Markus Reinhardt’s synths create that dark and eerie atmosphere that collides perfectly with Heppner’s lyrics about being lost and disintegration, the music video also creates that dark and eerie atmosphere and rarely the mood created by the images of a music video suit so well with the music and the emotions and atmosphere the song creates. We see black and white images of the band walking in empty fields, desolate landscapes painted in black and white to emphasise the emptiness, the trees totally bare, stripped of all leaves and colour. The desolate and empty images just collide perfectly with the feeling of having a void inside and feeling like there is nothing left to hold on to anymore that reverb from the lyrics of the song. Throughout the video we also see black and white images of religious statues and church-like decorations, colliding perfectly with the religious references that are repeated in the chorus.

The video is a masterpiece as much as the song itself and emphasised the atmosphere of the song: emptiness, desolate and gloomy. The combination of the words, the music and the images is just so spot on it is strangely close to perfection, the only bit of critique going to the TV stations forcing the band to cut the song short in order to have the video shown on TV. But don’t let that turn you off to watch the video, as it only makes the emotion of the song even stronger.

It is hard to say if the darkness of the video helped people to portray Wolfsheim as a goth band, which they never really were. Maybe you can label this song as such, but the band itself has been way too diverse to just tag and categorise. Luckily, within Germany people learnt to know that Wolfsheim was much more than the goth and darkwave band that some people claim they were, as their very much non-goth song "Kein Weg zurück" became a huge hit in Germany. I doubt foreign audiences know how diverse this band really was. Let’s hope Reinhardt and Heppner can put aside their differences, forget the bitter lawsuit, and someday rejoin, even if only to hear their masterpieces (including this one) live again once more.

"The Sparrows and the Nightingales" can be found on the 1992 release "No Happy View" and on the compilation album "55578".

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About thepathslesstravelled

An Aspie who has had a lifelong fascination with travelling, discovering new cultures and discovering new ways of life, and with a strange attraction to the less known and often forgotten places in the world. And very obsessed with sports and music.
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2 Responses to A darkwave epic: The Sparrows and the Nightingales – Wolfsheim

  1. Kerys says:

    Hey, I’m from France and I love Wolfsheim. Actualy once I played “Kein Zuruck” to a friend who thought the German language could not be beautiful… And she changed her mind. Darauf bin ich ganz Stolz ! 😉

    • Bonjour! That’s cool, how does someone from France get into German language music? (well, Wolfsheim are partially Germanophone). Not that many people speak German good enough to understand it, I lived in Germany myself but otherwise I may have struggled with this (and other German songs) too … If I may recommend : Wir Sind Helden is a great German-language band too (check songs such as “Nur ein Wort”, “Guten Tag (die Reklamation)” or “Denkmal”).

      But I like French music too, I adore Indochine. Hope to see them live someday, but their concerts are so often sold out within a few minutes here in Belgium. Each time they come here, it’s an issue to be in time to order tickets. I also love Mano Negra (well, they were living in Paris even when they were not all born in France) and there is an all-female band called Subway of whom I’m not sure if they still exist. But they were very good too. And well, we got Stromae. Alors on danse 🙂

      Oh, and pity Wolfsheim are no more, although I heard that some vague plans to continue the band are existing. I doubt this is true, but it would be great if they could solve their issues and get together again as a band.

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