Graded on a Curve: Element of Crime,
Immer da wo du bist
bin ich nie

Few Americans are familiar with the work of Germany’s Element of Crime; they don’t fall into the Krautrock, heavy metal, industrial or experimental categories so popular amongst Germanophilic music collectors here. Instead their melancholic, chanson-based music speaks directly to the German soul, which is every bit as gloomy as that country’s weather.

I only know of Element of Crime because my ex-wife (a big fan) and I saw them in the Hanseatic port city of Rostock, which is short on charm and long on inclement weather. Element of Crime may not hail from Rostock, but their mournful songs provide the perfect accompaniment to a walk across the barren winter potato fields bordering the small town in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern where my ex- grew up.

The small club where Element of Crime–who took their name from the Lars von Trier film of the same name and are fronted by Sven Regener, author of the acclaimed novel Berlin Blues–may have been packed with adoring fans, but I didn’t expect to like them; from what I’d been told they were a kind of cabaret act who’d never heard of Chuck Berry and sang in a language I didn’t understand. But I was in for a surprise; Element of Crime’s music transcended both language and cultural barriers and spoke to me in a way Neu!, Can, Rammstein, or Einstürzende Neubauten ever could.

The music of Element of Crime can’t be compared to that of any American or English band I can call to name. I hear vague echos of Lambchop in a few of their songs, but for the most part they constitute a genre in and of themselves.”It describes things that have no name in English,” wrote the Australian writer Anna Funder of the German language, and the same can be said of the music of Element of Crime.

On their 2009 LP Immer da wo du bist bin ich nie, Element of Crime perform songs about sorrow, curry wurst, moonless nights, pastrami sandwiches, and a woman named Deborah Müller, amongst sundry other subjects. And despite what I said above, not all of their songs are a Baltic Sea grey. LP opener “Kopf aus dem fenster” proceeds at an unexpected gallop, while “Immer da wo du bist bin ich nie” is what the Rolling Stones might have sounded like had Germany emerged victorious in the Second World War.

The LP’s highlight is the mournful and lovely “Am ende denk ich immer nur am dich,” which translates roughly as “In the End I Only Think About You.” It’s most certainly an acquired taste for American and British music fans, but upon repeated listening it’s as moving a song as I’ve ever heard. The sad and stately “Bitte bleib bel mir” (“Please Stay with Me”) is Germanic Americana sung against a backdrop of strings, while the shuffling “Deborah Müller” features mandolin, harmonica, accordion, and one from out of nowhere Mariachi trumpet.

The lazy “In mondlosen naìchten” (“In Moonless Nights”) boasts slide guitar, trumpet and harmonica, while “Kaffe und Karin” is a mournful waltz across the dance floor of a seedy Weimar Republic nightclub. On “Einer kommt weiter” (“One Comes Further”) Regener sings about pastrami sandwiches and mini-bars, which makes one wonder whether he’s in a Jewish deli or a hotel room, or whether hotel rooms in Germany come complete with Jewish delis. Knowing your Germans, it wouldn’t surprise me.

One of the reasons Element of Crime are so beloved in their native land is Regener’s writer’s eye for lyrics, but I don’t have to know what he’s singing to feel the sadness that anchors Element of Crime’s songs to the lonely recesses of the human soul. According to Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain, “had a lot of German in him.” I think the same can be said of us all. The world is, after all, a very melancholy place.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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