I think the first time I'd heard of Falco was when someone (probably one of my sisters) played his first major single, "Der Kommissar". (I remained rather unaware of his other big single ("Rock Me Amadeus") for a long time.) I've always liked the song a lot, and as I've been learning German for about six years now, it was also another part of the wonderful culture I have tried to connect myself with. (In fact, the only time I've heard the song on the radio was while in Germany three years ago.)
At some point before studying abroad in Vienna, I learned that Falco was not only an Austrian, but a true Wiener (that is, he's from Vienna; don't get the wrong idea), and I bought a 12" single of "Der Kommissar". While living in Vienna, I found a copy of his debut album, Einzelhaft (basically, "solitary confinement") for sale at a good price, so I bought it, and I really liked it. Shortly afterward, I decided to go to the Zentralfriedhof (Central Graveyard) of Vienna, where Falco, Mozart, and many other composers, authors, politicians, artists, and commoners are buried. Somehow I couldn't find Falco's grave, so I had to make a second pilgrimage after consulting a map that a fan made online. It's awesome:
Later, while in Graz, the second biggest city in Austria, I happened to find a reasonably-priced copy of Falco 3, which opens with "Rock Me Amadeus". I like Einzelhaft better, but Falco 3 sold better. Therefore, I'm going to review Einzelhaft and mention Falco 3 a fair amount at the same time.
Album: Einzelhaft ("Solitary Confinement")
Label: A&M (USA), Gig Records (Austria/Germany)
01. Zuviel Hitze ("Too Much Heat")
02. Der Kommissar ("The Commissioner")
03. Siebzehn Jahr ("Seventeen Years (Old)")
04. Auf der Flucht ("On the Run")
05. Ganz Wien ("All of Vienna")
06. Maschine Brennt ("Machine Burns")
07. Hinter uns die Sintflut ("Behind Us the Flood")
08. Nie Mehr Schule ("No More School")
09. Helden von Heute ("Heroes of Today")
If lyrics are any indication of character traits, Falco is a Vienna-loving drug user. "Zuviel Hitze", "Der Kommissar", and "Ganz Wien" are all clearly about drugs. "Zuviel Hitze" discusses overdosing (but is open to other similar interpretations): "es hat zuviel Hitze, und da friere ich" ("there's too much heat and I'm freezing") and "Staub zu Staub vergeht / ich komme viel zu spät" ("ashes to ashes die away / I'm coming much too late").
"Zuviel Hitze", though, simply cannot match either of the other songs discussing drug use. "Der Kommissar", a #1 single in at least seven countries, was the song that rocketed Falco to international fame. After the Fire, an otherwise forgettable American band, did a cover with fairly faithfully-translated lyrics that got to #3 in America, and one of Trent Reznor's first bands, Option 30, also did a cover with some hilarious vocal work from Reznor. The themes of the song are fairly straightforward: finding drugs and avoiding the police. The song has a good synthy feel and a fantastic guitar hook, and the chorus is irresistibly catchy: "dreh' dich nicht um / der Kommissar geht um / er wird dich anschauen / und du weißt warum / die Lebenslust bringt dich um / alles klar, Herr Kommissar?" ("don't turn around / the commissioner's around / he will look at you / and you know why / your lust to live will kill you / everything clear, sir commissioner?")
The key to "Ganz Wien" lies in the main chorus line: "ganz Wien / ist heut' auf Heroin" ("all of Vienna / is on heroin today"). The song pulses smoothly and rather slowly along, but it has a good rock feel and would make a good mid-tempo dance song. As per normal for Falco, synths abound and a good, distorted guitar adds texture. The song makes a few subtle specifically-Vienna references, such as the ball season there (the Opernball ("Opera Ball") is huge) and the U4, one of the original U-Bahn (subway) lines running through the city, partially along the Wienfluss (Vienna River).
"Siebzehn Jahr" is the only straight romantically-themed song the album, which to me is great. (I get really annoyed when bands can only sing about romance. It's a great theme to sing about, but so are many, many other things. For example, politics and history.) The girl of focus here is dating a film star and successfully manages to keep her youthful age a secret.
"Auf der Flucht" discusses two cities at different points in history: West Berlin, 1967, and Zürich, 1982. The title apparently refers to running away from the crises and problems in these places. I know the story of Berlin (the Wall, overzealous police force, entrapment due to Soviet influence on all sides, etc.) but I really don't know the Zürich story. Something about unsuccessful protests against some sort of financial situation... can anyone help me here? In any case, it's interesting and has a good driving synth riff. One must ask, though, why Falco didn't mention the Berlin-like situation in Vienna right after World War II (it was also divided between the four main Allied powers for ten years).
"Hinter uns die Sintflut" is about a scandal involving the discovery of an until then-successful money-laundering big-businessman. "Nie Mehr Schule" is a catchy and straightforward piece about having enough school and wanting to just have fun. "Helden von Heute", like "Ganz Wien", is more mid-tempo, but still driving, rockish, and danceable, with some staple synth-and-guitar work. The song appears at first to just be about being trendy and hip, but then mentions (in English) "no future" and then name-checks New Wave (clearly the movement Falco is a part of), but says of it, "ist heute das Wort für nichts Besseres mehr zu tun" ("[it] is today the word for having nothing better to do").
Review and Comparison with Falco 3:
If there's one thing you can say about Falco, it's that he loves Vienna. Keeping in mind that Wien is the German word for Vienna, consider that he has an album titled Wiener Blut ("Viennese Blood") and several songs about or mentioning the city ("Ganz Wien" ("All of Vienna"), "Vienna Calling", etc.). And if there's one thing you can say has changed about me since studying abroad, it's that I love Vienna. And it follows that I love Falco, but to be fair, his music isn't perfect.
There is something of a typical "Falco sound" (not too far from the typical New Wave sound...), and Falco doesn't really even try to avoid it. In fact, he appears to love it. However, to at least some degree, he is subject to the influence of whoever is (co-)producing and (co-)writing his music: Einzelhaft was a collaboration with Robert Ponger, but the far more poppy-sounding Falco 3 was a collaboration with Rob and Ferdi Bolland, who were clearly concerned with producing big hits. Falco 3 is loaded with plenty of hits ("Rock Me Amadeus" (a funky song about Mozart and how much of a punk he was), "Vienna Calling" (straightforward pop about.... nothing), "Jeanny" (which tries way too hard to be a big ballad), and "America" (humorously about selling records there, missing being there, and an American trying to buy a Wiener Schnitzel in Austria)), but ultimately feels very shallow. (Also... lame cover:)
Whereas the pop and gloss of Einzelhaft is redeemed by mostly clever lyrics, the novelty of being 95% German, and simply good music, Falco 3 fails to have any depth. There's too much English, too much poppyness without good reason, and the closing cover of Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" is so passive, elevator-music-esque, and forgettable that one has to wonder why Falco bothered. (A rewrite of the Cars' "Lookin' for Love" as "Munich Girls" works somewhat better.)
Einzelhaft is a fun romp through nearly campy nostalgia and novelty, but even beyond that, as a serious work, it is fairly good. Wikipedia mentions the influence of David Bowie's Eno-assisted Low album, but the connection is thin. (Wikipedia goes as far as to say that "Nie mehr Schule" borrows "Speed of Life"'s music and "Helden von Heute" is a rewrite of "Heroes", but I think neither are the case.) The music is very New Wave, with lots of synth and a good dose of guitar. The beat is always danceable, and weird sound effects can be found on the fringes. Also important is just how catchy the album is (something can't really deny about Falco 3, also).
Eventually I'll get around to checking out more of Falco's albums... he has several more, most of which were #1 smashes in Austria (and sometimes in Germany, too), but the two I've discussed here and probably the only two people know anything about in America. I half want Nachtflug ("Night Flight") just for the cover:
Should you ask which Falco album to buy, get Einzelhaft. It's more fulfilling, and as far as #1 singles go, "Der Kommissar" is better than "Rock Me Amadeus".
Falco 3: D+ (D is for "disappointing", remember. It isn't horrible, just... not as good as Einzelhaft.)
"Der Kommissar": A+
"Rock Me Amadeus": B+
Falco's grave: A+ (Literally the best I've ever seen.)
Note that you can find translations of many Falco songs (including most of Einzelhaft) at http://www.falco-calling.com/translat.htm. [Edit 2019.11.14: archived link.]