[29 June 2006]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The term “Socratic irony” generally refers to letting on less than you already know, intentionally appearing modest, ignorant, or naïve in order to allow the opposition to expose its own weaknesses. Apparently its namesake, Socrates, used the technique to counter widely-held opinions and dogmas of his day. Simplified, Socratic irony is like saying to a kid who refuses to wear a jacket on a subzero day, “You want to go outside without a jacket? Hmmm. Sounds interesting. OK, go ahead and come back and tell me how it feels.”
You could make the argument that part of the reason for the still-stunning commercial and creative longevity of the British band Depeche Mode lies in their ability over the course of their 26-year career to invoke their own brand of Socratic irony.
The dogma holds that a band that loses its primary songwriter after one album is doomed to a short life… that effete, 1980s-rooted British bands die young and will never capture the hearts and minds of mainstream collegiate America… that stadium-filling worldwide superstardom—and its attendant vices and downfalls—is for acts that wield guitars and Big Ideas. Yet Depeche Mode have outlived nearly all of their British “indie” contemporaries. They have sold tens of millions of albums worldwide, 2005’s Playing the Angel contributing handsomely to that total. Despite a heavy reliance on synthesizers and programmed rhythms, they are regarded as one of the most visceral and popular live acts around. Most importantly, they retain a fanbase that is among the most fervent and dedicated in popular music.
Through it all, Depeche Mode revealed themselves as masters of setting low expectations and then bettering them. Not so much in terms of their music, which has always continued to grow and expand and contract and challenge. But as far as playing the rock ‘n’ roll game, hitching to commercial and artistic and cultural claims and expectations, Depeche have, in retrospect, until recently employed an almost deer-in-the-headlights approach.
They credited their continued success after original hit-writer Vince Clarke left the band in 1981 to their being too naïve to pack it in. In 1988 the British music press were genuinely incredulous of how the band could be “big” in America. Depeche responded by basically saying, “Well, you have a point; maybe we’re not that big. But you pose an interesting question. Let’s book a concert at the Rose Bowl and just see what happens.” 65,000 showed. When in 1990 an in-store appearance staged in southern California—perhaps the most heavily Depeche-fan-concentrated area of the world—erupted into a 17,000-strong near-riot, the band members were taken aback, shocked. Even now, they continue to act bemused by claims of their formative effect on house and techno music. And when Led Zeppelin-sized drugs and ego clashes threatened to bring them down, they continued to give the impression that they were nothing more than four particularly fortunate working-class boys from Basildon.
In England, which likes even its indie pop stars outsized, bilious, and self-proclaimed musical messiahs, Depeche Mode’s approach was resented by the press, which for years punished the band by harping on its fey early days. Still, Depeche have never, ever had a single or studio album bellyflop in the UK. Which means that, even in England, the band’s message has come across and been embraced, and continues to be. Everyone loves an underdog, especially a sincere one. Depeche Mode have never been above promotion, videos, marketing. However, in a culture that has increasingly put media image and “conventional wisdom” to the fore, folding itself into self-reflexive origami creations, they have left millions of people saying, “Forget all that, man. Just listen to the music. Listen to the lyrics”.
This trio of newly-remastered, re-issued albums goes a long way (but not all the way) toward showing why the music and lyrics were so appealing. Even here, though, the band are being cautious. Instead of adhering to chronology, they’ve chosen to inaugurate the long-overdue renovation of their back-catalog with the three albums currently regarded by most critics and many fans as their best (not to mention bestselling). So, while 1981’s Speak & Spell, 1987’s Music for the Masses, and 1990’s Violator don’t allow for much of a linear story, they do capture Depeche Mode at three crucial points in a remarkable career.
In 2006, pop music is hip once again. Therefore, Speak & Spell is currently enjoying more critical praise than at any time in its 25-year existence. Undeniably, “Just Can’t Get Enough” is a classic candypop single, but Speak & Spell is generally a collection of good, disposable tunes. It functions more as a preview for Clarke’s mid-‘80s pop juggernaut Erasure than a predictor of Depeche’s future. Its chief asset is its genuine sense of fresh-faced enthusiasm. Speak & Spell is the sound of a band that is assuming it’s going to be a flash-in-the-pan—and doesn’t care. 18-year-old Dave Gahan’s voice is distinctive but usually almost whisper-soft; he has yet to develop the stylistic touches and dynamics that would earn him the nickname “the Sinatra of alt-rock”. The two contributions by Martin Gore, who would soon replace Clarke as primary songwriter, offer no hints at all of where Gore would eventually take the band.
Music for the Masses shows just how far Depeche Mode had come in six years. In the accompanying DVD documentary, Gahan insightfully says, “I think that in some ways what’s been so special about Depeche [is]... we created our own sort of utopia, and lived in it”. In 1987, that utopia was at full fruition; a warm, inviting place to be. Thanks largely to the production input of Clarke’s replacement, Alan Wilder, the music has a timeless, quasi-classical feel, underpinned by the cathedral chimes that float in and out of the songs. Around the time of Masses’ release, one mail-order catalog claimed, “It never rains harder than in a Depeche Mode song”—as right-on a description of the album’s thick, lush atmosphere as any. The crashing yet gorgeous anthem “Never Let Me Down Again” is a classic, with a lyric that encapsulates Gore’s uncanny ability to shape intensely personal emotions into expressions so universal that listeners could plug in their own equally personal interpretations. The delicate “Little 15” and debauched “I Want You Now” aren’t far behind. All in all, however, this isn’t one of Gore’s strongest batches of songs. What makes Music for the Masses so appealing in the end is the evocative result of words, music, and production clicking perfectly. It’s all brought to a head in the slowly-building layers of the stunning, Wagnerian chant “Pimpf”.
Music for the Masses lived up to its title (which, true to form, Gore claimed was ironic), especially in the States, where it cemented the connection between Depeche and middle American kids. If Masses brought the band to within spitting distance of the mainstream, Violator exploded right through it. But the album’s status as a modern classic was far from evident upon its release. The subversively twangy teaser, “Personal Jesus” (actually a song inspired by Priscilla Presley’s relationship with Elvis) was a shot in the arm of a single, and follow-up “Enjoy the Silence” remains blissful melancholy defined, but in 1991 the respected critic Ira Robbins described their parent album as a “handsomely performed, tuneless waste”. He had a point—from a melodic standpoint, Violator takes a while to sink in. But that’s less a result of weak songwriting than the brilliant production by Wilder (represented as “Depeche Mode” in the credits) and new collaborator Flood. The genius is in the way Violator disguises itself as a sleek, hermetically-sealed Euro-electro record—and then sneaks in plenty of stadium rock elements. The implied message is, “We know, rock and synthesizers aren’t supposed to mix, but what if we just try this double kick-drum on ‘Halo’, or add a smidge of guitar feedback and squealing to ‘Policy of Truth’, or use big drums on ‘Sweetest Perfection’, but then loop them?.” It works; it all works. Violator is an ecstasy-fuelled elixir of lust and machinery, bathed in blue light and plated with cold chrome. It hasn’t dated a day.
If anything, Violator suffers from overfamiliarity, but the pristine new 5.1 mixes indeed give the feeling of hearing these albums anew. In the late 1980s, digital converting technology just couldn’t handle all of the sounds synthesizers could make; now it can. On Speak & Spell in particular, Gahan’s vocals are finally mixed up so that it’s almost a new performance you’re listening to. Gahan’s “utopia” description is reflected in the accompanying mini-documentaries as well, where all sorts of familiar, time-tested faces (including Wilder, who left the band in 1995, and Clarke) show up to share their experiences.
Socratic irony or not, Depeche Mode are more self-aware now. After 26 years, the original trio of Gore, Gahan, and Andy Fletcher know their place in music history, and seem to be rightfully proud of it. Maybe the bottom line is that they were telling the truth all along—they really are just particularly fortunate working class boys from Basildon. Gore once said, “You can get away with murder if you call yourself a pop band”. If that’s true, Depeche Mode are smooth criminals indeed.