Less than three minutes into The Man Machine, an album that faithfully extends Kraftwerk’s unmistakable brand of exquisite torture, this group has successfully drained the blood from the listener’s body and pumped in the liquid Lysol. With its efficient modern-world toys — synthesizers, speech synthesizers, synthesized percussion — Kraftwerk strikingly creates a sound so antiseptic that germs would die there. What’s more, the band has never been this conceptually stubborn — even the dreaminess of “Neon Lights” is kept under close surveillance by the insistent percussion — but, happily and ironically, the music gains in power and force because of it.
Listening to The Man Machine is like listening to a telegraph: spare melodies, along with countermelodies, are repeated endlessly. As are the curiously trivial lyrics, usually delivered with the sternness of those voices you hear coming from Dictaphone units. It’s no understatement to say that “The Robots” and “Metropolis” are polar opposites of the German drinking song. Yet, for all its chilling restraint and relentless sameness, the compositions here are often strangely pleasant in an otherworldly way. Probably because of Kraftwerk’s sheer audacity, the overall effect is simultaneously frightening and funny.
As with Trans-Europe Express, the new record has a built-in ambiguity that pretty much accounts for the group’s charm. Though Kraftwerk would seem to worship machines — totally unlike Brian Eno, who, on his brilliant Before and after Science, explores their possibilities — the band might actually be committed humanists, documenting how emotionless the future will be if we continue to cheer such “innovations” as the Chemical Bank Cash Machine. Maybe. Whatever its stance, Kraftwerk still parodies us dumb mortals. Last album’s screamingly funny assessment of the disco masses, “Showroom Dummies,” has given way to “The Model”: “You can hear them say/She’s looking good/For beauty we will pay.”
What kind of boredom is this? It feels so good when it starts, and it feels so good when it stops.