The career of Claudia Brücken is a triumph of quality over quantity. Although the German singer has been making records since 1984, when she bowed with Propaganda‘s dark and majestic single “Dr. Mabuse,” her core discography features only five full-length albums, each made with different collaborators. Certainly “Greatest Hits” discs have been compiled from far less; second-tier 80’s synth-pop duo Blancmange managed to spin three patchy full-lengths into countless best-of sets. Yet looking at the new Brücken anthology Combined (out now on ZTT), what’s impressive is how consistently compelling her work has been, despite long gaps between projects. She might not have the cultural cachet of David Bowie or Björk, but Brücken has shown comparable discipline when it comes to making music. Each title in her catalog is distinct unto itself, yet all are unified by her unmistakable vocal timbre and theatrical delivery.
Over the last quarter century, Brücken has quietly accumulated one of the most impressive résumés in electronic pop music. In addition to all three of her classic singles with Propaganda (“Duel,” “p:Machinery,” and “Dr. Mabuse”), Combined includes tracks with genre pioneers Thomas Leer, Paul Humpheys of OMD, and Depeche Mode‘s Martin Gore, influential producers Trevor Horn and Stephen Hague, neo-classicist Andrew Poppy, and singers Andy Bell from Erasure and Frankie Goes to Hollywood‘s Paul Rutherford. And that’s just a survey of the fifteen selections featured on this anthology. Brücken’s back pages also feature recordings with Bronski Beat front man Jimmy Somerville and Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17. (Her 1985 duet with the latter, “When Your Heart Runs Out of Time,” from the Nicolas Roeg film Insignificance, is one of the highlights on the overwhelming double-disc The Art of the 12″, another new ZTT collection.)
What shines through on all the material is Brücken’s inimitable voice. Perhaps it has something to do with her country of origin. With its teeth-gnashing consonants and lip-puckering umlauts, German demands more of singers than romance languages like Italian, and although Brücken’s work is almost exclusively in English, that element of physicality has always informed her delivery. Whether she’s cooing about being completely blissed out by romance (her delirious 1991 single “Kiss Like Ether”), railing against the dehumanizing effects of technology, or chewing up a pop classic, Brücken never sounds like she’s just phoning in her performance. In another era, she could have easily been an edgy supper club chanteuse, as evidenced by her 2005 stripped-down covers disc with Poppy, Another Language, and Combined‘s take on the Roy Orbison standard “In Dreams…,” but instead Brücken has often set her rather earthy voice amidst swathes of keyboards and orchestras. With its mix of brains, muscle, and bald sincerity, her oeuvre evokes the character of Maria, the beautiful heroine of Fritz Lang’s 1927 Expressionist classic Metropolis, and that film’s lasting conclusion: “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart.”
Because of her close ties to ZTT (she was married the label’s co-founder, music journalist Paul Morley), a record company notorious for churning out countless permutations and combinations of every scrap in its vaults, a certain amount of padding has crept into Brücken’s discography over the years. As marvelous as 1988’s Laughter, Tears and Rage, her sole album with Thomas Leer under the moniker Act may be, only diehards need the triple-disc reissue edition. Likewise, while the recent reissue of her 1991 solo set Love: And a Million Other Things boasts improved sound — and highlights the influence Brücken had on contemporary pop acts like Kylie Minogue, Goldfrapp, and Ladyhawke, all of whom subsequently worked with Love producer Pascal Gabriel — the bonus disc of remixes and b-sides is far from essential. Which makes Combined even more remarkable in its brevity and clear-eyed focus. Casual fans get a succinct overview of the singer’s work to date, while rabid devotees can relish the five previously unheard offerings, which include a 2001 cover of David Bowie’s “This Is Not America” and “Sequentia,” an unreleased cut by her Onetwo project with OMD’s Humphreys.
Greatest hits and retrospective packages often feel like cheap cash-ins and hurried affairs. Kudos to Claudia Brücken for staying true to her idiosyncratic vision with Combined, and turning what could have been a mere footnote into another career milestone.
DJ El Toro hosts the variety mix show on Wednesday nights from 9 PM to 1 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His weekly rant, Weird At My School, appears infrequently on the KEXP Blog. Please follow DJ El Toro (aka Kurt B. Reighley) on Twitter and/or Tumblr!