I adore Falco’s debut album Einzelhaft. Some of my favorite songs of his are here: “Der Kommisar,” of course, but also “Ganz Wien,” “Maschine Brent,” “Auf der Flucht,” and “Zuviel Hitze.” All classics in my mind.
A lot of my affection for Einzelhaft lies in my general affection for the era it came from. The early ‘80s era of New Wave lands right on the sweet spot of my music tastes. There are certain sounds and tropes that wrap around me like a warm blanket, and I can find a lot of them here. It’s an easy album for me to revisit time and time again.
“Zuviel Hitze” leads things off. It’s an atmospheric song that sounds like the theme to an ’80s noir film. The electronic drumline has a bit too much hi-hat in it, but I love the strong bassline and the thin, bright synth strings. It’s a great opener.
Not much on this album, or indeed the rest of Falco’s discography, can stand up to “Der Kommisar.” Here Falco introduces his hip hop-influenced vocals, his signature style that packs a lot of lyrics into the verses and seamlessly weaves in English phrases. (Note the nod to Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which he will reference again on “The Sound of Musik.”)
It also has some amazing musical flourishes. The simple guitar riff to start the song is iconic, and the post-chorus riff revels in a particular mid-’80s guitar sound. (I need to find out which pedal makes that sound.) The understated keyboard line during the verse is subtly evocative of an accordion. And that vibrant, brassy synth line during the chorus is so great it should replace police sirens in Vienna.
“Siebzehn Jahr” is a bit of a breather after that. It doesn’t contain much you haven’t already heard during the previous two songs. The vocal stays in Falco’s rap-sung style, allowing back-up vocals to carry the melodic lines. It’s a decent tune, and I really love the chorus punctuated with a buzzing guitar line. But this feels like a bit of filler, a little breather after the big single.
Einzelhaft kicks back into gear with “Auf der Flucht.” Falco’s vocal is intense, as if he has just a brief moment to sing his song before running away (from Der Kommisar, perhaps). The guitar is so crunchy and delightful, especially when accentuated with the talkbox. And the guitar solo is organic, not wedged in because it was the ‘80s and they needed a guitar solo.
Ewa Mazierska in Falco and Beyond notes that “Auf der Flucht” introduces a theme that Falco returns to often in his body of work: “a ‘lived,’ mundane apocalypse.” While more idealistic and nihilistic art portrays major upheaval as leading to great change, Falco posits that upheaval only leads to a permanent state of upheaval. She writes, “This catastrophe might be political or metaphysical and is, inevitably, personal too: individuals just have to adjust to it (p. 84).” That sounds particular poignant as I write this up during the COVID-19 quarantine.
The next two songs are some of Falco’s strongest compositions. “Ganz Wien” is a chilling song about the rampant drug problems in Vienna at the time, and you can’t miss it: the German words for cocaine, codeine, and heroin are the same as in English, and Falco doesn’t flinch from using them throughout. The piano line is disjointed, giving the song an unsettled feeling. Falco’s vocal, especially after the totally unnecessary ‘80s guitar solo, is particularly anguished.
Next is “Maschine Brennt,” and it is a strange song. The arrangement is a standard ‘80s New Wave pop song, but there aren’t really any melodic vocals here. Falco is full-on rapping, and the chorus is chanted instead of sung. The melodies come entirely from the orchestration, not the vocals. The darkness of the lyrics is mostly hidden by the shimmering orchestration. I am not doing a good job of selling it, but my point is “Maschine Brennt” is a song whose parts are at odds with each other, and yet it comes together to make a compelling piece. I adore it in part because it’s so odd and in part because it’s so catchy.
Lace up your skates for “Hinter uns die Sintflut.” The synths and the vocal here are very cheesy in a seemingly deliberate way, as if Falco was predicting he would be a lounge singer someday. There is something particularly off-kilter about it. The echoing guitar fights with the kitschy arrangement the entire time.
The weakest song on Einzelhaft is “Nie mehr Schule.” It still has some of the cheese we heard in “Hinter uns die Sintflut,” but Falco’s vocal has at least escaped the lounge. With the chorus of kids singing along, the whole thing sounds like a perky Austrian version of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In the Wall (Part 2).”
“Helden Von Heute” keeps us in the realm of kitsch, but it works in ways that the previous songs did not. Falco conceived it as a successor to David Bowie’s “Heroes” (the “Helden” of the title), but it’s a bit too hokey to work in the way he had intended. But I can sense the grandness of it, with a sunny and bouncy orchestration to show off its sparkling synths. There’s no chorus per se, just a pre-chorus that just takes you back into the opening riff. “Helden Von Heute” is as close to arena pop as Einzelhalft gets, and it probably killed live. The deranged sax solo at the end could have derailed the whole thing, but it just makes “Helden Von Heute” better.
The title track closes out the album, and it is kind of an odd way to end. It’s a departure from the established style, sounding more like what Kraftwerk would sound like if they had completely sold out. With its “Trans-Europe Express” rhythm, mechanical orchestration, and distant, robotic vocals, “Einzelhaft” comes off as an experiment that should have stayed in the lab.
In its defense, though, I’ll go back to Falco and Beyond. Mazierska ties it back to Falco’s dark world view that he introduces in “Auf der Flucht.” “People [in the ‘80s] became selfish, cruel and lonely and dependent on drugs to carry on,” she writes. “There is, however, no encouragement to change the world nor a warning that a Messiah will come and do the ‘cleaning up’ for us; this world will go on forever (p. 84).” She also links “Einzelhaft” to the industrial techno genre, which she says was influenced by Falco’s music and apocalyptic world view.
Mazierska describes Einzelhaft as “the most German record in Falco’s career and for many of his fans his most authentic (p. 83).” There is something to that. There is an edginess to Einzelhaft that disappears in Falco’s later albums. Not necessarily lyrically (as we’ll see in future posts), but certainly in song structure and orchestration. It sounds like the work of someone who is hungry, not someone who has settled into their skin.
That said, Einzelhaft still sets the tone for the rest of Falco’s career. He is already honing the sophisticated Romantic pop singer persona he would carry throughout the ‘80s. He has already started to blend rapping and singing in an interesting and unique way. And he hints at how his mash-up of German and English will make his work accessible internationally. As raw as Einzelhaft is, it is still the work of a self-assured performer who just needed the right song (and better music videos) to become a global pop star.