In 1981, fast approaching the peaks of both their creativity and success, Kraftwerk released their eighth album Computerwelt (Computer World). Somewhat implausibly, it predicts an age when every home would have a computer, and where electronic gizmos would have become the focal point of people’s daily lives, even to the point of dating on them!
In spite of a slightly ill-advised obsession with hand-held calculators, this is a remarkably prescient album, and also one which fits the general Kraftwerk theme of technology, so isn’t far from being one of their most perfect albums.
The title track Computerwelt begins by describing how humans have become simple points of data within a world controlled by computers, with the sort of beautiful soft analogue backing that Kraftwerk‘s fans were still several years away from discovering. This also provides a rare example of why you should listen to these albums in German – this track contains some extra lyrics which never made it onto the English version.
Then comes the iconic Tashenrechner (Pocket Calculator), also released in French as Minicalculateur. Making a song out of a musical calculator must have been a lot of fun in the early 80s, but it does seem a bit out of context nowadays. Then Nummern (Numbers) is one of the oddest Kraftwerk tracks in many ways – somehow it’s become completely iconic, even though there really isn’t much in the way of melody, lyrics, or anything else much apart from numbers and breakbeats. Still brilliant though. That mixes smoothly across to the lovely Computerwelt 2, which closes Side A with a few more numbers and the soft sounds of the opening track.
Side B opens with the brilliant Computer Liebe (Computer Love), the track which so accurately predicted online dating a couple of decades before it really took off in earnest. In its full seven-minute form, it’s a slightly strange track, perhaps ever so slightly too long and slow, but still undoubtedly one of Kraftwerk‘s finest songs, and deservedly half of their biggest single (it made up the other half of the double a-side with The Model in 1981).
The closing pair of Heimcomputer (Home Computer) and It’s More Fun to Compute are less distinct, which is probably why both were combined on The Mix a decade later, but between them they exude a brilliant uneasiness with technology – as with the rest of this album, they celebrate computers but also seem to warn against relying on them too much.
It would be another five years before Kraftwerk would eventually reappear with the much delayed and somewhat misguided Electric Café (or Techno Pop), giving everybody a chance to catch up, but by Computerwelt they had already ensured their legendary status, and it is definitely one of their finest albums.
There seems to be some debate about the dynamics of the 2009 reissue compared to earlier releases, but I think it’s probably the essential version, available from Germany here.