[10 May 2007]
For the final tandem installment of the Depeche Mode reissue campaign, Mute have remastered 1983’s Construction Time Again and 1986’s Black Celebration and released them as deluxe two-disc packages. These albums were originally issued on either side of Depeche’s breakthrough record, 1984’s Some Great Reward. At a time when most music on the radio was becoming lighter, slicker, poppier, and more easily consumable, Depeche Mode’s evolution moved to counter to these trends.
Construction Time Again marked the shift of this movement away from the band’s bouncier beginnings. Leaving behind the perky synth pop of “Just Can’t Get Enough” (from Speak & Spell) and “See You” (of A Broken Frame), “Love in Itself” consented to offer a beat you could dance to, but it bore a heart of darkness. Martin Gore expressed his gloomy view on the redemptive potential of love to cure “All of the absurdities that lay before us / All of the doubts and uncertainties that lay in store for us.” The track “Pipeline”, meanwhile, is unrelentingly depressing. It’s also overly lethargic. “More Than a Party” is up-tempo, but far from upbeat. It’s seething, pre-industrial groove prefigured the following album’s musically similar, yet vastly superior, “Master and Servant”. Another cut whose pace is far too slow, “Shame”, is the album’s low point.
Without doubt, the highlights on Construction Time Again are its singles. Along with “Love in Itself”, the moody “Everything Counts” boasted a surprisingly pretty chorus, while “Told You So” matched its message of condescension with bratty keyboard sounds. Okay, yeah, certain sections of the track can get a bit annoying, but it is effective. And the ping-ponging whispers at the end still sound cool 24 years later. Mostly, though, CTA serves as a stylistic bridge. As such, it’s the most awkward, and perhaps worst, studio album in the Depeche Mode discography.
Fortunately for fans, that mediocre record’s release was paired with one of DM’s very best, Black Celebration. After the success of Some Great Reward, the band could’ve easily coasted along on their own coattails and quickly cranked out a probably pretty decent follow-up the very next year. Instead, they recorded a handful of new cuts and put together a very satisfying early career compilation, The Singles 81 - 85 (dubbed Catching Up with Depeche Mode for the US market).
And then they crossed into a new realm. In some ways, the differences were subtle. The Depeche Mode of Black Celebration was still easily identifiable as Depeche Mode. The level of sophistication in the music, however, was immediately apparent. For the first time in the group’s career, their sound flowed. Gore, Andy Fletcher, and Alan Wilder had wrangled a sense of looseness and a pervasive atmosphere of bleakness out of their machines. This is partly down to improvements in synthesizer technology, as well as increased assurance in their capabilities in the recording studio. And, as producer Daniel Miller outlines in the package’s booklet, Depeche made good use of real world samples, particularly car engines. You can almost taste the carbon monoxide.
More so than any other entry in the Depeche Mode canon, it’s worthless to look at Black Celebration in terms of singles versus album tracks. The cuts they chose to release—“Stripped”, “A Question of Lust”, and “A Question of Time”—are none of them obvious hits. But they’re all great songs. On the record, they are part of the awesome whole, and their strengths are no greater than any of the other cuts that surround them. The title track sets the sooty, bitter mood right away. “Sometimes” recaptures the fragility of Some Great Rewards’ “Somebody”. And the gentle “World Full of Nothing” is one of the most romantically un-romantic songs ever: “Though it’s not love / It means something”. Not all of Black Celebration is without hope, however. Dave Gahan turns in a particularly tender vocal on “Here Is the House”, as he sings “And I feel your warmth / And it feels like home”.
Catching up with 1980s Depeche Mode certainly feels like home to me. For young Gen Xers and the older edge of Y, they were one of the bands who saved our souls back in those school-age days. Looked at from a crass angle, these deluxe reissue packages are well-designed milkers of nostalgia. Mute has taken these things we already loved and made them better and prettier than ever before. The sound quality, even on the standard versions of these albums, is fantastic. I can only imagine that the 5.1 mixes on the DVDs are stunning. Each set also includes short films on the time period and extra tracks in the form of b-sides and remixes. I prefer to take the music-lover’s perspective and view the newly revamped Depeche Mode catalog as reframed works of art. Adding Construction Time Again and Black Celebration to the gallery completes the set, even if the former somewhat mars the collection. Fanatics will need to own them all, although the greatness of Black Celebration exceeds mere nostalgia and, along with Music for the Masses and Violator, should be on any music lover’s CD shelves.