In Kraftwerk’s records, one can trace the evolution of electronic music from their rawest early years in the ‘70s to their maturation and metamorphosis into various other genres during the height of the ‘80s. Autobahn is the first Kraftwerk record where the abstract sounds of primitive synthesizers met with structure, finding some semblance to modern electronic music. Although on subsequent records, the music would become more coherent and accessible as Kraftwerk would start sounding more and more like a modern-day techno act, Autobahn rests in a sweet spot that shows the transition of this band from eccentric tinkerers to brilliant pop musicians.
The almost 23-minute long title track around which the entire album orbits is a perfect example of the marriage between the inventors and the artists. While its length screams of weirdness, it is not as strange as the other pieces on this record, which are actually way shorter. As a matter of fact, the title cut is the only place on the album where the band seems to be trying to form a coherent song-structure, albeit its lengthiness.
As for adding concept to the principal number, the band might appear naïve and almost literal as they set out to reproduce the sounds of driving on the autobahn, but even with a mechanical approach, the outcome is pretty catchy and not a bit kitschy. And even though the band would write far catchier tunes on subsequent releases, this track would always be the ultimate pop song in Kraftwerk’s catalog. The inclusion of pastoral guitars and flutes (conveying imagery of beautiful landscapes) paired with the modern automated synth sounds is a challenge that the band excels in wonderfully. And with a quirky chorus and a contagious rhyme – “Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn” – when the track ends, it is more like 23-minutes of enjoyment than 23-minutes of endurance.
Even though the rest of Autobahn continues as a concept, subsequent songs, however, don’t adhere to the automotive theme. The rest of the record, even with shorter songs, comprises minimalistic atmospheric cuts that surpass the bounds of a conventional song structure. With the exception of “Kometenmelodie 2,” these obtuse pieces are hard to make sense of. Although moody, the band’s futuristic interpretations of a “Comet Melody” (“Kometenmelodie” 1 and 2) or the “Midnight” (“Mitternacht”) or a “Morning Walk” (“Morgenspaziergang”) are not ridden with the gloom and doom of most futuristic art. The band is happy to embrace technology with inquisitiveness rather than fear.
As a matter of fact, “Morning Walk” (or “Morgenspaziergang”) uses the dreary synthesizer to effectively (though not elegantly) create the soothing sounds of the morning, like the flowing of a stream and birds chirping. Adding bucolic flutes and piano to the artificial nature sounds does make for a very awkward juxtaposition of things rather than creating an air of calming morning harmony. This abomination of music is definitely odd, but it is so very cool when this band attempts it.
In spite of how unassuming it is on the surface, this release is an ambitious effort. Although future Kraftwerk records would refine and perfect the crude robotic music that Autobahn aspires to, this is where it all began. Autobahn is the birth of techno.