Cities Made of Light: Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine Turns 45
Looking back on the German group’s most human album
It’s not necessarily a good feeling to be the square who suggests an artist’s most conventional or accessible album is their greatest work.
That is to say, winning an argument and being liked are two circles in the Venn Diagram that don’t always touch. Time to be unpopular: The least experimental, most concise, tightest album by electronic pop’s most important innovators is their best. Maybe that’s not a terribly controversial take, but for a group (of completely alien genre no less) to crash American Top 40 with the nearly 23-minute roadway ode “Autobahn,” it doesn’t feel fun to say their 36-minute 1978 outing The Man-Machine is their most rewarding work.
What is fun? Listening to The Man-Machine. From the iconic rolled R’s of “The Robots,” the opener and theme statement for Kraftwerk, to the hypnotic-cute hook of the closing title track that Jay-Z borrowed for early single “(Always Be My) Sunshine,” it may well have been the first synth-pop album as we know it if the quartet had any kind of aptitude for verses and choruses. That’s why hip-hop and club musicians loved Kraftwerk in the first place though, they rode computerized grooves and hooks into the sunset with little need for much else, sometimes even for 23 minutes. “Autobahn” changed their trajectory eventually, with their other best-album candidate Trans-Europe Express working in concert with David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy to fuse pop with cold, sterile repetition meeting warm, analog-synth textures.
But that one was almost titled Europe Endless, after its marching, triumphalist opener, and it maintained the sprawling highway theme even sanded down to a quite normal 42-minute LP. It did have “Showroom Dummies” and “Hall of Mirrors,” though, the first two Kraftwerk tunes that examined human fallibility as closely as they celebrated transportation systems and radio transmitters. Maybe that was part of the concept, that we should aspire to be egoless man-machines lest we get sucked into the mirror like falling stars.
The opening blips and whirs and relative funk of “The Robots” are for sure less ominous than those two Express highlights though; they’re basically The Stooges to Depeche Mode’s Sex Pistols. Similarly, “Metropolis” meets Giorgio Moroder at the crossroads of full-blood disco and tin-man sequencer house, epic intro build and all — it may be the danciest track Kraftwerk ever crafted themselves without a remixer involved. It’s certainly the one that most resembles the successive techno landscape that wouldn’t have existed without this group. Meanwhile, “The Model” is Kraftwerk’s most brooding and horniest song simultaneously; with their humanoid appearances, it’s genuinely hard to tell which one they’re trying to convey, and the genius is that it’s both. The music strikes a similar imbalance: Some of their most downcast (and catchiest) chords set up a wordless chorus of chiming synth-organ that sounds like it could light a cathedral.
AUDIO: Kraftwerk “The Man-Machine”
I’ve saved The Man-Machine’s two greatest achievements for last. Per its starry-eyed lyric, “Neon Lights” is a nine-minute 4 AM taxi through the all-night metropolis of your choice. With all due respect to the wondrous “Computer Love,” which now receives royalties from Coldplay, “Neon Lights” is Kraftwerk’s most emotional paean to technology, a gently awestruck gaze at the power of technology itself, to turn a city into vibrant skyhigh colors with “shimmering neon lights.” My favorite Kraftwerk melody ever is even simpler, though, almost quaint. “Spacelab” is simply a beautiful, folkish (in the Legend of Zelda sense) tune shot through oscillating “I Feel Love” artifice for six minutes.
The Donna Summer hit is instructive because she and Moroder released it the year before The Man-Machine. Pop and disco were already starting to rebuild themselves in the image of Kraftwerk’s synthesizers. They may be the robots, but they weren’t the only ones. That’s why I’d like to think they focused sharply on writing great songs in 1978. If a robot (or model) knows anything, it’s that there’s always a newer model to replace them.
One way you know Kraftwerk were human after all is that no one’s ever found a replacement.
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