While Autobahn found Kraftwerk embracing a more robotik sound than their early largely-improvised avant-garde Krautrock, it still had a few fleshy bits sticking to its chrome exoskeleton.
Trans-Europe Express finds their cybernetic mutation nearly complete.
Autobahn’s twenty-minute title track is often called the blueprint for Kraftwerk’s career. And while there’s nothing here anywhere near its length, every track dives deeply into the same simple melodies, repeating song structures, and electronic instrumentation.
But perhaps the biggest departure from their early material is the full-hearted adoption of pop structures. Every one of these tracks (barring the instrumental “Franz Shubert,” which reprises the arpeggiating synth line from “Europe Endless”) has a verse and a chorus. Even “Hall of Mirrors,” the least accessible track on the album with its spoken-word sections and cascading atonal synths, is still a pop song.
But that’s as weird as it gets. Overall, Trans-Europe Express is a pop album stripped of any emotion. It delights itself in cheesy synths, contrived melody lines, and repetition. And while all of these elements are commonly cited as criticisms of modern pop, when Kraftwerk does it, that’s the freaking point.
This mechanical detachment creates a sort of Schrödinger’s Pop Album situation. Because it says so little on its own, it becomes whatever the listener needs it to be. These are minimalist pop songs, yet there’s an experimental quality that can’t be escaped. It forecasts New Order and Madonna in equal measure.
And thanks to this mercurial quality, it’s a must-have for every music fan’s collection.