Pitchfork Media review of Kraftwerk’s excellent box set collection The Catalogue. Written by Tom Ewing, Dec. 1, 2009…
Kraftwerk are a band trapped in the vast frame of their apparent influence. Aptly for a group so fascinated by travel they enjoy an image as the ultimate electronic pioneers — “the reason music sounds like it does today,” as one BBC documentary put it. Let’s take for granted then that it’s impossible to imagine modern pop music without Kraftwerk and try a more interesting thought experiment: Let’s try to imagine Kraftwerk without modern pop. What if they’d released the same body of work and influenced nobody? Would it still sound as good?
This box set is an opportunity to find out– a remastered, sealed-off package of what Kraftwerk (or at least remaining founder Ralf Hutter) would like you to consider its canon. This starts with 1974’s Autobahn. The three albums Kraftwerk made before are beloved of many fans, but the group routinely ignore them as inconvenient prologues charting the band’s messy discovery of electronics. The Catalogue skips past these to give you a run of five consecutive masterpieces, two albums whose flaws are at least intriguing, and then 2003’s very fine Tour de France. Most of these remasters are available as separate issues (due to licensing issues three of them aren’t in the U.S.), but the box as a whole is as full a Kraftwerk story as you’re likely to be officially offered. As such it invites you to consider their achievements and development in relation to themselves, not to wider history.
So why is Autobahn the official starting point? I like to think it’s because this was the record where the band suddenly hit on one of the things they could do better than anyone else — capture and make beautiful the precise sensations of everyday activity. Going for a drive, catching a train, using a computer, riding a bicycle — these are terribly mundane things to create sound-portraits of, but Kraftwerk find loveliness and power in them without ever losing a basic accuracy. You might think of “Autobahn” itself — the 22-minute breakthrough for this method — as a perverse take on psychedelia: a recreation of a mindstate, not the altered state of a trip but the low-level trance of day-to-day travel.
The electronic arrangements Kraftwerk were using turned out to be superb tools for achieving this: precise enough to suggest mechanization and able to showcase the group’s gift for simple, wistful melodies (like Autobahn‘s “Kometenmelodie 2”). On the follow-up, Radio-Activity, it’s these aching, slowly unfolding tunes that make the deepest impression, on the title track and “Radioland”. The album is Kraftwerk at its most melancholy and oblique– wreathed in decaying fuzz and crackle and ghostly background tones. It’s also where the band’s remastering job is least effective. The remasters mostly add precision and sharpness to already finely-drawn music — but Radio-Activity, uniquely for the group, sounds better the more indistinct it is. The ancient wireless on its cover is the record’s ideal medium.
Trans-Europe Express, on the other hand, is Kraftwerk hitting peaks of sublime clarity. Everything they do well is here: As a hymn to a mode of travel the title suite manages to better “Autobahn”, and the opening tracks show off their emotional economy and subtlety. “The Hall of Mirrors” is the most chilling Kraftwerk song, a hollow man pacing a hollow space pursued by taunting, reflecting arpeggios. “Europe Endless” is a love song to a continent’s history and new-found, hard-won peacefulness.
The cuckoo-clock rhythms of “Europe Endless” turn up again on “Franz Schubert”, clockwork keyboard figures that bring to mind the automata which delighted 18th and 19th century courts. As an electronic group Kraftwerk are routinely called futurists, but far more of their work is informed by the past. On The Man Machine, their lushest album, they do explore science-fictional themes, but it’s the sci-fi of the 1920s and 1930s — Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the earliest conceptions of robots. This era is a constant reference point in Kraftwerk’s 1970s material– a lost time and opportunity in European, and specifically German history, erased by totalitarianism and war.
Generally, though, The Man Machine is unified only by consistent loveliness. Nothing has the dynamism or force of “Trans-Europe Express”, but the title track, “Spacelab”, and especially “Neon Lights” are thick, tone-drenched pleasures. Their next album, Computer World, took this richness and mixed it with rhythmic drive and conceptual rigour to create the group’s most satisfying record.
Computer World is the first album in The Catalogue with no nods to history– it abandons the 20s and 30s as touchstones and explicitly relates to the then present day, that giddy era at the start of the home computer boom. Then as now, tech enthusiasts preached imminent social transformation with a mix of excitement and hope. Kraftwerk were happy to reflect this: “I program my home computer/ Beam myself into the future.” But as was often the case, their lean arrangements and simple lyrics put them into a deliciously ambiguous place between delight and mockery. The appealing bounce of “Pocket Calculator” sounds rather faux-naïve after “Computer World” has coolly outlined the new networks of power which computer technology was enabling.
At the center of Computer World is “Computer Love”, its singer lonely and muted amidst some of the most delicately gorgeous synthwork the band ever crafted. Its interface of desire, alienation, and technology is a bridge into some of the music on 1986’s Techno Pop, like “Sex Object” and “The Telephone Call”. But where Computer World seemed timely, this follow-up feels like a bad magazine article: “Five Hot Digital Trends for the Mid-80s”. Formerly known as Electric Cafe, it’s a sluggish record and Kraftwerk’s weakest by some distance. The first half is a suite of dry tracks about electronic music itself: people were making it, apparently. The second half is livelier and funnier, and the remastered edition adds 1987 remix “The House Phone” which becomes the record’s best track — as its name suggests it has a little more dancefloor kick than the others.
Techno Pop — so like a Kraftwerk record and yet so unsatisfying — suggested that even the best of the group’s material was a couple of bad decisions away from being enormously irritating. So it’s easy to view The Mix — a selection of their old work, digitised and retooled to 1990-era specifications — with suspicion. But there’s some great music on the album: a fierce re-write of “Radioactivity” and an edit of “Autobahn” that brings out the song’s playfulness. Also, unlike most mix albums of the period this one had a purpose: these more physical and propulsive versions have fed into Kraftwerk’s live set ever since.
After The Mix, silence for a rumor-filled decade, and then at last new work: an album about cycling, built around their magnificent 1983 single “Tour de France” and probably their most thematically focused record ever. This wasn’t simply revisiting old ground: the opening five tracks of the Tour de France CD build into a rippling 20-minute piece that shares only an idea and a few keyboard figures with the older song. This music is a wonderful piece of engineering, with the lightness and strength of a titanium bike frame, all weightless skitters and low-friction keyboard glide. It brings The Catalogue full circle, back to the impressionist style of “Autobahn” and the marvelous skill Kraftwerk have of collapsing the distance between the music and its subject.
If you find Tour De France boring, that’s surely in part intentional — the aim of the distance cyclist is to hit an equilibrium where a genuine fusion of human and technology can take place, muscle and mechanics operating in a virtuous feedback loop. As with a lot of the music on The Catalogue, it shows Kraftwerk’s true strength: not as futurists or speculators or robots, but as participants in technology. They are a band who, more than any other, catch in music what interaction with machines really feels like — sometimes glorious, sometimes lonely and frightening, occasionally very funny. By presenting their story in its own context, The Catalogue does this remarkable talent a great service.