Born in England’s new romantic movement, Basildon’s Depeche Mode immediately proved capable of making flawlessly captivating electro-pop tunes with simple formulae. What set them apart at the outset (how times change) was their complete reliance on synthesizers, offering post-modernistic gloss to comfortably familiar (but new) material. Over the years, the increasingly successful group has grown pompous and gloomy, embracing heavier and denser sounds (as well as non-electronic instrumentation).
The best songs on Speak and Spell were UK hits: “New Life,” “Dreaming of Me” and the smash “Just Can’t Get Enough.” Oblivious to innovation or deep thinking, the album is simply a good, catchy collection of modern dance tunes.
Despite the dire predictions that followed songwriter Vince Clarke’s departure to form Yazoo (and later Erasure), Depeche Mode pressed on, essentially unhampered, as a trio to make A Broken Frame, which has similar virtues, tempered with some deviation from course. David Gahan’s vocals are stronger, and while funk forms the rhythmic base of “My Secret Garden,” a Japanese tinge is given to “Monument,” and “Satellite” centers around a ska beat. The rest of the album varies to a small degree from prior dancemania without abandoning it — a characteristic midpoint between experimentation and repetition.
Expanding back to a quartet, with Martin Gore continuing as the main songwriter, Construction Time Again exposes a mature outlook, dropping the simplistic pop tunes for a more intellectual, challenging approach. The transition is not altogether smooth. “Everything Counts” offers a bitter denunciation of the (presumably music) business world and “Shame” is a heartfelt confrontation with responsibility. Other tunes (“Pipeline,” “More Than a Party”) are less probing, although the former has interestingly industrialized music and chanted vocals. (The Construction Time Again CD adds a bonus cut.)
People Are People (not released in the UK) is a compilation of post-Clarke tunes, drawing five of its tracks from the two preceding LPs and the rest from singles. Not a cohesive album, it does contain prime material blending synth-rock with real-life and industrial noises to make truly modern pop music.
Some Great Reward is Depeche Mode’s best record, containing everything from the bitter religious doubt of “Blasphemous Rumours” to the socio-sexual role playing of “Master and Servant” and the egalitarian “People Are People.” Seamlessly blending unsettling concrŠte sounds — like synthesized factory din and clanking chains — into the music, the group achieves a masterful music/life mix few of the same mind have approached.
As Depeche Mode’s international stature grew to awesome proportions, two compilation albums — The Singles and Catching Up — were released. The former, issued in the UK, is a fine collection of thirteen familiar items; the cassette and CD add two more. The American release has most of the same tracks (excluding those already compiled on People Are People), but includes “Fly on the Windscreen” (also on Black Celebration) and “Flexible.” Complicated enough? (Actually, the quartet’s discography is far more involved, thanks to numerous EPs. “Blasphemous Rumours,” “Everything Counts,” “Get the Balance Right,” “Love, in Itself,” “A Question of Time,” “Never Let Me Down Again” and others have all been issued on 12-inch and CD with non-LP bonus tracks, many of them live.)
Depeche Mode had tackled many different lyrical concerns in making their albums, but none are as consistently downcast as Black Celebration. Except for intermittent bouts of romanticism and a bluntly political protest (“New Dress”), the songs are filled with doubt, disgust and depression, an attitude reinforced by their dirgelike, minor-chord constructions. Unfortunately, many of the tunes resemble each other; shards of the same melody turn up repeatedly. There’s a certain grim power to this work, but it’s not one of their more appealing or accomplished albums.
Music for the Masses is marginally brighter in temperament, but shows the band running low on creative juice. Unambitious, bland and forgettable, the album displays little beyond Gore’s emotional anxieties and Gahan’s vocal limitations. The tense “Behind the Wheel” and “Never Let Me Down Again” are the only powerful songs here, and both have dumb lyrics and skimpy, underdeveloped melodies. “Pimpf,” a turgid piece of operatic nonsense, ends the album on a most unpromising note. The CD has four bonus tracks.
Given the band’s underwhelming concert presence — a woeful mixture of pre-programmed synthesizers and Gahan’s unsteady vocals — the advisability of a live album (and a theatrical documentary filmed by D.A. Pennebaker) can only be weighed against the potential for profit. Young Depechites undoubtedly could care less about the inadequacies of 101 — four sides of hits, etc., recorded at a 1988 stadium show in Pasadena, California — but this is hardly a significant item in the canon. (The CD adds three.) Perhaps it was the mirror held up to Depeche Mode by 101 that caused the gloomy synthesists to unravel. The stability and unanimity of purpose gained early on when Alan Wilder joined (replacing Vince Clarke, who wrote most of the songs on the first album and then left at the end of ’81) undoubtedly helped the quartet become wall-poster stars of countless depressed teenagers. They provided solace, if not guidance, in the dense, ominous atmospheres of singles like “Blasphemous Rumours,” “Master and Servant,” “Never Let Me Down Again” and “Shake the Disease.” In the ’90s, however, fame and fortune did not provide enough of a panacea for the psychic ache that has manifested itself in the group’s personal troubles.
The dismal Violator (which nonetheless produced more US hit singles — three — than any other DM LP) matches Music for the Masses for shallow blandness. A lack of external input locks the insular group in a closed creative circle that shows no signs of opening or expanding. Worse than routine music (the LP’s best song, “Enjoy the Silence,” is totally self-derivative; the idiotic “Clean” uses a monotonous sequencer line borrowed from Kraftwerk), the vague egocentric lyrics (“Blue Dress,” “World in My Eyes”) no longer make any effort to be about anything. Only the lyrics of the album-ending “Clean” indicate any break in the clouds: “Now that I’m clean…I’ve broken my fall…changed my routine.” In the record’s sole flash of wit, “Personal Jesus” (also released on a five-mix CD) uses a jaunty rock’n’roll swing, but “reach out and touch faith” isn’t a very profound message.
Songs of Faith and Devotion (followed, nine months later — just in time for Christmas shopping — by a track-for-track live version, recorded on tour in Europe and New Orleans with two female backup singers adding much-needed texture and melodic accuracy) is marginally stronger if lyrically grimmer than Violator. The album, which needs a warning sticker for underage moralists in the audience, could better be titled Songs of Sex and Arrogance. By the second number, “Walking in My Shoes,” Gore (via Gahan) is back to moaning about his misbegotten past, wallowing in self-righteous (or at least self-induced) misery: “I would tell you about the things they put me through / The pain I’ve been subjected to / But the Lord himself would blush.” Oh, come on, Marty — try him. Gore’s dream of remorseless redemption (the ’90s zipless fuck?) runs through the record: in “Condemnation,” he avers, “I’m not looking for absolution…I’ll show no repentance / I’ll suffer with pride.” In “Get Right With Me,” he instructs, “Don’t waste your energy making apologies.” Only “One Caress” actually admits a request for anonymous exculpation: “And I pray to the only one / Who has the strength / To bear the pain / To forgive all the things that I’ve done.” As usual, the central DM industro-pop sound on this understated album is set off by a few stray stylistic elements-ballads (after a fashion) and soul/gospel (after a fashion).
Evidently, the gloom in Depeche Mode’s music had some basis in the quartet’s reality, although Gore seems able to safely sublimate his demons into hits. Citing “increasing dissatisfaction with the internal relations and working practices of the group,” Alan Wilder quit in May ’95. A few months later, Dave Gahan was hospitalized in LA after slitting his wrist, reportedly amidst drug and marital problems.
Gore gave songwriting a rest for his solo EP, an insubstantial 12-inch of obscure cover versions. (The traditional “Motherless Child” and Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” are the most familiar songs in his repertoire; other selections come from Durutti Column and Tuxedomoon.) Skillful but occasionally running too contrary to the material, Counterfeit demonstrates two things: that Gore can carry a tune and that he has no artistic ambitions beyond Depeche Mode’s usual style.
Long before he bailed out of the band, Wilder began exploring extracurricular opportunities under the name Recoil. He unveiled the side project in 1986 with 1 + 2, a British 12-inch that he later expanded and reissued as the longwinded Hydrology and 1 + 2. Accented with ephemeral electronic and vocal noises, the monotonous instrumentals drone aimlessly in several idioms: loud synthesizers, soft synthesizers, pinging synthesizers, chanted vocals and piano. The first track recalls Tubular Bells, and that’s the record’s most provocative feature.
Returning to Recoil in ’92, Wilder made the seven-track Bloodline, using such guest vocalists as would-be rapper Moby, Diamanda Galás, Toni Halliday of Curve and a sample of the late bluesman Bukka White. Only sporadically song-like (the title track, sung by Halliday, is an ominous storm cloud of distortion that resolves into a sunny day), the collection favors engrossing ambient exercises with dialogue loops, clattering, atmospheric electronic music and firm clock beats that don’t lead anywhere. Bloodline hardly sounds like the future for an international pop star, but it does fill the background with enough intriguing sounds to be a keeper.
Trans-Mode Express is a tribute album in which a subdirectory of techno bands covers DM songs.