For a while – maybe even a week – after New Year’s, I could still glance at the top of newspapers and feel a quiet, thrilling jolt at the date. Of course I hadn’t thought anything would change when the year did, but even so there was briefly an air about that little row of zeroes, something solemn beyond even the most rational of my cynicisms. Maybe it was only the look of them, oval, open and welcoming, that made me feel sneering was – well, not the wrong response precisely, but an easy, cheap one nonetheless. For those few days, hoping despite the evidence that some kind of change would come felt a great deal less crass than trumpeting that it wouldn’t.

Then gradually you started living in the year, writing it on letters and rent cheques, seeing it everywhere on e-mails and bills and on adverts, adverts, adverts, and the feeling ebbed. You began to resent the year 2000, and those three zeroes came to seem cipherous: bland and endlessly divisible, like the market.

As good a time as any for Kraftwerk to come back: listening to their “Expo 2000”, the music seemed able to contain both reactions. “The 21st Century,” says a Kraftwerk-robot, “Man. Nature. Technology.” And then again in German. In the measured, uninflected words you can hear progress and optimism: the triad of nouns presented as indivisible, a simple fact rather than a wish. It’s a little while before you remember that the song grew out of a trade fair jingle.

Being excited about Kraftwerk’s return might at first seem as silly as being excited about the date change: there was, after all, not even the ghost of a possibility that Kraftwerk could shatter and reshape music like they had once – or so went the legend – done. The very process of techno teleology that had turned them into the most influential band since the Beatles was their downfall. Expectation paralysed them, and disappointment was inevitable: even the records they had made seemed oddly frail next to the all-powerful thought of Kraftwerk The Pioneers, the men who gave birth to dance music.

You could see it in the way their first records were gradually forgotten, and then in the way that people only ever talked in public about the rhythms and the robotics. In order to work as myth, Kraftwerk were reduced to a handful of their most rigid tracks – the pro-tech Computer World rather than the miasmic Radioactivity; the kitschy detachment of “The Model”, not the sharp observation of “Hall Of Mirrors”; the harsh propulsion of “Trans-Europe Express”, never the sentimental sweep of “Neon Lights”. As if you could have danced to Kraftwerk anyway: as if that would have been the point if you had.

Yes, Kraftwerk were a band of staggering originality – conceptually so sharp and musically so visionary that it’s sometimes difficult to believe they even happened. But the Silver Apples were original, too, and so were Cluster, and though those bands get paid cult they’ve never broken through into pop history like Kraftwerk. What you forget about Kraftwerk – what “Expo 2000” can remind you of – is how human and resonant they could be, in the simplest sense, of sparking feelings and bringing a lump to your throat.

Listen to “Europe Endless”, the first track on Trans-Europe Express. It sounds pristine, beautiful, Utopian, even before the soft-spoken voice comes in. There’s nothing ‘rock’ about that voice, but there’s nothing cold or mechanical either. What I hear is history, sadness and hope: the great, scarred old continent looking into a future which might at last be peaceful. Far from the blank-eyed conceptualists their legacy casts them as, Kraftwerk at their peak made intensely reflective, poignant music. Their embrace of the synthesiser’s beauty and stability can be taken as a stern or canny comment on mechanisation – but it can also be heard as music made in a time and place which needed stability, which was weary or suspicious of rock’s wanton drama and rage to expend itself.

As musical ‘revolutionaries’, they did what they did and are now gone: “Expo 2000” is not the work of that Kraftwerk, and will sadden or bore those who believed in it – as was always going to be the case. But when I hear Kraftwerk, I hear the band that better than any other represent the Western Europe I know. Science fairs, civics, socialism, faded grandeur; the motorways, the parks and the public works; sad, proud places where calm is still a feeling new enough to cherish – behind it all I can hear Kraftwerk’s music, unfolding metrically and with an understated depth. This is the group that released “Expo 2000”, men finally freed by pop history to once again make the records they always did. We should keep quiet and let them, I think.