Rule of Three
In popular media especially, success brings with it one big caveat. If you’re going to achieve it, you have to deal with it. And if you’re successful on a massive, world-beating scale, you’re going to have the potential for massive fallout. Just ask Depeche Mode.
Most bands that reach worldwide superstardom follow a fairly predictable trajectory. Over the course of a few years, one or two albums place them at the pinnacle of public, and often critical, acceptance. Then the rest of their careers are spent in denouement, either re-adjusting to a less massive but more manageable popularity, or fruitlessly and embarrassingly chasing the past. Usually this trajectory can be seen clearly only in hindsight. For example, at the time, did Smashing Pumpkins know that Machina would come to be viewed as a desperate grab at the alchemical combination of rock energy and eccentric whimsy they had concocted on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness?
The uniqueness of Depeche Mode’s situation is they were able to pinpoint and accept their popular pinnacle within just a couple years of its occurrence. Thus, they were able to re-adjust successfully and avoid some of the internal and external difficulties that slowly kill many bands. In the late ‘90s, you could hear Depeche Mode comfortably talking about their “peak” in past tense, with more a sense of relief than frustration. True, maybe perspective comes easy when you’re a multi-millionaire with a sizable worldwide fan base. But in many ways, Depeche Mode in 1997 had no choice but to put the success of Violator and the excess of Songs of Faith and Devotion into perspective. The course of events simply dictated they do so.
The travails of the 1993-94 Songs of Faith and Devotion tour, and of singer Dave Gahan’s subsequent heroin addiction, have been well-documented. Gahan’s 1997 recovery is critical to that year’s Ultra because, without the recovery, the album would not exist. But as far as the music, the 1995 departure of Alan Wilder had a much more significant impact. As the lone studio rat (and classically-trained musician among the group) Wilder had played an increasingly broad role in the arrangement and production of Depeche Mode’s music. It would be safe to say that most of the sounds on Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion were Wilder creations. Famously, he transformed “Enjoy the Silence” from a dirge-like demo to an exquisite house track. His absence left a huge hole in Depeche Mode’s sound. The remaining band members did not replace him, deciding to carry on as a trio for the first time since 1982. Instead, they relied more heavily on outside producers to lend form and detail to Martin Gore’s songs.
Tim Simenon was a great choice for Ultra. As the man behind Bomb the Bass, he had mastered an immaculate, midtempo trip-hop sound. At the time, Gore claimed Massive Attack as a big influence; sure enough, Ultra is full of thick, meditative grooves. The stripped-back, more modest approach suited the band’s situation nearly perfectly. In terms of both music and lyrics, Ultra is wounded, confused, and contrite. After the lumbering “Barrel of a Gun” pushes to the edge of self-parody, Gore’s quiet, crestfallen guitar melody on “The Love Thieves” settles the album into place with the very sound of humility.
With the near-demises of the band, and Gahan providing material, Gore’s songwriting is strong and heartfelt, especially on a trio of underappreciated singles. Musically, the chugging, whip-smart “It’s No Good” is classic Depeche Mode. Lyrically, with lines like “Don’t say you want me / Don’t say you need me / Don’t say you love me / It’s understood”, it’s Depeche Mode doing Billy Squier. And it works! The string-enhanced, Gore-sung “Home” is one of the songwriter’s warmest, most affecting moments, while the dirty grind of “Useless” matches genuine self-doubt and frustration with Gore’s career-first, two-note guitar solo. Even in its lesser moments, Ultra rings true, and the newfound grace and maturity in Gahan’s voice only adds to the album’s considerable depth.
Gahan sounds even better on 2001’s Exciter, but the album is generally derided as one of Depeche Mode’s weakest. The title does it no favors, because Exciter is actually the slowest-moving, most self-contained Depeche Mode album ever. By that time, Gore was into obscure European electronica, so the choice of Mark Bell as producer made sense. A former member of proto-techno act LFO, Bell was best known for his sonically inventive work with Björk. Indeed, Bell lends Exciter a woozy, crackly, subtly detailed feel. If Depeche Mode have a “headphones album”, this is it. Melody, however, was not Bell’s strength, and on Exciter Gore could use some help in that department. Many songs sound strained, with Gore hard-pressed to come up with knock-out choruses, usually his forte. “Shine”, for example, is gorgeous and lush, until its pulsating, note-free non-chorus intrudes. A couple exceptions are notable. “Dream On” is nearly as effective an amalgam of blues and electro-rock as “Personal Jesus” was, only this time it’s acoustic folk blues and skitterbeat instead of electric twang and glam. The delicate lullaby “Goodnight Lovers”, rightly described by Gahan as a Velvet Undrground/Nico track, is sublime. And for its faults, Exciter is the most sensual, “adult” album in Depeche Mode’s cannon, as evidenced by “When the Body Speaks” and “Freelove” in particular. It’s just not among the most dynamic or memorable.
As with all of the recent Depeche Mode reissues, these two are excellently-presented. The packaging is exquisite, and each album is augmented, as ever, by a candid, engaging mini-documentary. The poor mix on the Exciter CD, which inexplicably shoves Gahan’s voice to the background, is disappointing, but both albums come with ear-tickling 5.1 surround versions.
Ultra and Exciter evidence a band that knows its place and generally works well within it. These albums are worth another, or maybe a first, look.