Kraftwerk and the Blue Mask effect
All sensible people will, of course, rejoice at the news that Kraftwerk, one of the five greatest music acts of the last half-century, are set to release a new album. It’s been nearly 10 years since the well-dressed Germans gave …
All sensible people will, of course, rejoice at the news that Kraftwerk, one of the five greatest music acts of the last half-century, are set to release a new album. It’s been nearly 10 years since the well-dressed Germans gave us the puzzlingly mono-dimensional Tour de France. It’s been three decades since they released a genuine classic: Computer World. Hang on. I appear to be talking myself out of my own enthusiasm. Do I not? Neither that cycling-related LP nor Electric Cafe from 1986 were in the top rank. It’s also worth noting that the new album will not feature the great Florian Schneider, who, with Ralf Hutter, formed the dual-core of the band. That’s like releasing a Steely Dan LP without Donald Fagen.
Still, Hutter is no fool and everybody who savours the mechanical rhythms of post-war electronica will look forward to the new release with some enthusiasm. If it is really good then we’ll all feel a little better about the business of growing old. Look. Folk like Kraftwerk continue to perform creatively for decade after decade. Maybe we are immortal, after all.
Yes, it’s really them. Honest, Injun.
But will we play the blasted thing? Here’s my point. Popular musicians have an awful habit of spontaneously ceasing to matter. It can get to the point where, however good the new album, it just doesn’t seem to want to sit on your turntable (or appear in the iTunes window). A whole generation of musicians now specialise in releasing albums that get good reviews, sound super on first and second listen, but are almost immediately relegated to the file marked “ignore”. Some people have written nice things about the new Bruce Springsteen LP. But, when it comes round to Boss Time again, will they really play Wrecking Ball (that’s what it’s called, right?) rather than Darkness at the Edge of Town or Born to Run? I don’t think I’ve played Bob Dylan’s highly praised Modern Times since the week it came out. Yet I listened to Blonde on Blonde just yesterday. When Saint Leonard Cohen recently released some new batch of muttering, there was, in the coverage, a real sense of “It’s nice that it’s there. But I’ll probably be sticking with Songs of Leonard Cohen.”
Now I come to the title of this piece. A film writer on another paper once described this condition to me as “The Blue Mask effect“. Nobody is more adept at releasing albums that, though good, don’t invite revisiting than grumpy old Lou Reed (not that I’d say it to his face). Oh goody. It’s The Blue Mask. It’s Magic and Loss. It’s New Sensations. It’s New York. It’s Set the Twilight Reeling. This sounds great. I’ll play it at 10. I’ll stomp around the room. I’ll put it back in its jewel case (remember them?) and never, ever play it again. Never again.
It is often weirdly easy to pinpoint the point at which an artist drifts into The Blue Mask zone. It happened to Elvis Costello in 1986. That year’s Blood and Chocolate sounds like an LP that’s tuned into the zeitgeist. For some odd reason, Spike, released in 1989, just does not. The new rave culture, Madchester and the pre-grunge genius of the Pixies were bubbling. Still someway short of his fortieth birthday, Declan MacManus sounded like (ahem) a man out of time.
It’s trickier with David Bowie. Let’s Dance is one of his biggest selling LPs. But it is the first of his records that sounds like a man following trends rather than creating them. (Really! Young Americans may have dallied in Philadelphia Soul, but, in 1975, that music was as foreign to most white rock fans as were nose-flute melodies of the lower Andes.) Proper David Bowie probably ended with Scary Monsters in 1980.
A few artists have managed to produce records you keep playing for decades. Neil Young had a fair crack at it. You wouldn’t think somebody odd if they played Harvest Moon rather than Harvest or Ragged Glory rather than Zuma. But, yes, Harvest Moon and Ragged Glory are now 20 years old. And I don’t find myself reaching for recent albums such as Mirror Ball or Prairie Wind all that often.
It just seems that, with the best artists, the great, early music lodges in your brain and doesn’t leave space for anything new. It remains possible to appreciate fresh work in an academic fashion. One can write an equation to prove that, say, the latest Tindersticks’ LP is a “return to form”. (It kind of is, actually.) But if you have 20 minutes free to enjoy Nottinghamshire misery you’re going to click on one of the master miserablists’ first six LPs. Aren’t you?
Anyway, let’s hope that the new Kraftwerk LP has a bit more staying power. We continue to travel hopefully. Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn.