A Sleek, Sporty European Roadster: Reconsidering Depeche Mode

Depeche Mode
A Broken Frame

Their name is French (for “hurry-up fashion”), but they’re British. They are a band, but their roles could be more accurately described as songwriter/singer/PR and vision control manager. When their original keyboardist/songwriter left, they hired a new member but then banned him from recording sessions. Depeche Mode have always been full of contradictions, so it’s oddly fitting that the long-overdue revamping of their back-catalog has proceeded non-chronologically, if not randomly.

What this latest batch of luxuriously-packaged, multimedia-enhanced reissues does is present the veteran band at three distinct stages of development, self-actualization, and confidence. Consider Depeche Mode as a sleek, sporty European roadster — of which they are essentially the musical equivalent. On 1982’s sophomore effort A Broken Frame, they are slowly but surely moving out of city traffic, following each bold acceleration with a reactive tap on the brake pedal. 1984’s Some Great Reward finds them whipping around twisty backroads and bearing down on straightaways at full speed, engine alternately rumbling and purring perfectly, doing what it was meant to do with an artful passion. By 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion, though, the transmission is overstressed, the engine is overheated, and the whole thing is thundering forth recklessly and with only a scrap of control, dangerously close to careening spectacularly down the nearest cliff.

Never a dull moment with Depeche Mode.

And that, as much as anything else, is what’s impressive about the band’s quarter-century-spanning body of work. As one publication noted a few years ago, they’ve never released a bad album. Some have been better than others, for sure. But they’ve never had a full-blown, groan-inspiring dud; a Pop!, Monster, or Wild Mood Swings. Most critics agree that Depeche Mode make generally solid, sometimes great singles. The band’s long-lived consistency on the albums front, though, is something they rarely receive credit for. It’s also left hardcore fans to search for whipping-posts-by-proxy. 2001’s Exciter is a frequent candidate. So is A Broken Frame.

After the success of debut Speak & Spell, in England and Europe Frame was received within the context of being Depeche’s Dreaded Sophomore Album — with a twist. Main songwriter and visionary Vince Clarke had abruptly quit the band not long after Speak & Spell‘s release, making Depeche’s swift departure from public consciousness (and the charts) seem even more imminent. To replace him on tour, the band hired Alan Wilder. He was the only classically-trained keyboardist in the group; so, in true Depeche style, the others refused to let him partake in the subsequent recording sessions, feeling they had something to prove on their own. The foreboding storm clouds in Brian Griffin’s iconic sleeve photo fit the bill. But they also represented the remaining trio’s and producer/Mute label head Daniel Miller’s desire to defy expectations and in doing so take a step forward from the debut’s charming yet fey synthpop.

And with Marin Gore stepping into the songwriting role, they do a pretty good job. Ominous, lyrically affecting, and downbeat, opener “Leave in Silence” would give any song from Speak & Spell nightmares. Even in its compact album mix (the original American issue of Frame substituted the superior 12-inch version), “Silence” is a calling card for subsequently long-running Gore trademarks like religious chanting, minor chords, and deceptively sing-song choruses. On the far side of the album, “The Sun and the Rainfall” is another highly-atmospheric, thoughtfully-arranged meditation on failed relationships; the round at the ending is one of the best-kept secrets of the entire Depeche Mode catalog. In between, “Monument” and “Shouldn’t Have Done That” mix Beach Boys harmonies with increasingly experimental electronics.

Depeche Mode – Leave in Silence

Aside from the classic, unabashedly old-school love song “See You”, Gore’s attempts to retrace the Speak & Spell sound on several songs are cloying, though Gore’s revelation in “The Meaning of Love” that “love seems something like wanting a scar” is a harbinger of things to come. It’s hodgepodge and suffers from gooey synth-drums, but A Broken Frame at least tries to live up to its title, and sometimes succeeds nicely.

Most Americans heard Frame not as the follow-up to Speak & Spell, but as one of the Depeche Mode albums they went out and bought after they heard Some Great Reward. In 1984, Depeche Mode were fast becoming a nonentity in the States. Their first two albums had found some cult success, but 1983’s Construction Time Again had missed the charts entirely. Then “People Are People” came along and was a massive British and European hit. In a desperate move, American label Sire attempted to hard-sell the single by making it the title track for a thrown-together odds ‘n’ sods collection in early ’84. No dice. But, slowly but surely, “People Are People” infiltrated American radio and found a huge, loyal audience among teens and clubgoers — just like the band as a whole. Looking back, the irony is that “People Are People” is one of Gore’s most hamfisted lyrics, taking obtuse swipes at human injustice with lines like “It’s obvious you hate me though I’ve done nothing wrong / I’ve never even met you so what could I have done”. Musically, however, the track was a mind-blower, and remains a sonic mini-symphony. Exploding from the speakers with thunderous beats, metallic scrapes, and staccato orchestra hits, it doesn’t stop uncoiling until, exhausted, it fades into plaintive guitar plucking and the sound of scattering seagulls.

It’s just one of the many sonic delights of Reward, the proper studio album that surfaced later in 1984. Digital sampling technology was at the nascent stage before it became more of a crutch than an exploratory tool, and the band and co-producers Miller and Gareth Jones took full advantage. From the opening gurgling of “Something to Do” to the final, literal gasp of “Blasphemous Rumours”, each track is full of thrilling new sounds that zoom from speaker to speaker. Wilder, now a fully-functional band member, was getting into Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, influences that help turn “It Doesn’t Matter” into the album’s most blissful piece of melancholy. It still sounds like it’s coming from another universe entirely. Wilder’s own “If You Want” takes the same aesthetic in an uptempo direction — like an X-Wing – Tie Fighter battle set to music with a good beat, only much cooler than that all sounds.

Depeche Mode – If You Want [Live 1984]

All the sonic manipulation and industrial kling-klang without strong melodies to serve amounts to Einstürzende Neubauten, and you don’t see their back catalog being reissued in deluxe, two-disc packages. Some Great Reward delivers in all phases, with memorable songs that are just as hummable as any of Depeche’s previous hits, the harmony-rich chorus to “Blasphemous Rumours” a particularly glowing example. Lyrically, as well, Gore was coming into his own, chronicling the twists, turns, and frustrations of (young) adulthood with equal parts candor and wit. The naked piano ballad “Somebody” has suffered from overexposure and countless mascara-stained ripoffs, but Gore had the upper hand from the beginning, presciently claiming “Things like this / Make me sick / But in a case like this / I’ll get away with it”. It’s easy to forget that, before “Enjoy the Silence” was even a glimmer in Gore’s unconscious, Some Great Reward went platinum in America — even though a good percentage of people couldn’t pronounce the name of the band whose music they were buying. Simply put, no album from the time period (and few from any other) does a more thorough, dead-on job of capturing — sonically, musically, and lyrically — what it feels like to grow up. And, in the end, isn’t that what all timeless popular music does?

Nine years later and Depeche had so successfully connected with the hearts and minds of young adults and self-described outcasts everywhere that they were in grave danger of turning into their very own Fat Elvis. On the DVD mini-documentary (an excellent addition to each of these reissues), a wonderful exchange between then tour manager Andy Franks and then band assistant Daryl Bamonte sums up the ego-clashing, drug-heavy situation circa 1993:

Bamonte (describing the Spanish Villa where the band were recording): “It was very kind of Al Pacino and Scarface.”

Franks: “In more ways than one, probably… It was in the diplomatic quarter, wunn’t it?”

Bamonte: “I don’t think there was much diplomacy going on, though.”

Or try this for perspective: In 1987, in a sarcastic reference to its cult status, Depeche had issued an album called Music for the Masses. That album’s follow-up, 1990’s Violator, sold seven million copies worldwide. Now, in ’93, came Songs of Faith and Devotion, without an ounce of irony in sight. It seemed that the band, always so adept and creative in avoiding the expected, had made the most clichéd of rock moves — taken success so badly that it was more a curse than anything else.

Yet, in spite of the odds, Songs is a compelling album. And the band still managed to defy musical expectations; just when everyone was expecting Violator II: Depeche Mode Go Techno, out they came with Gretsch guitars and live drums on the punishing one-chord stomp “I Feel You”. And that was the single. Actually, the rest of the album is far less caustic — but no less heavy. With Wilder and Flood producing, “Walking In My Shoes” and “In Your Room” are impossibly elegant and lush, even for Depeche, and singer Dave Gahan delivers an all-time great performance on the aching “Condemnation”. Some hip-hop touches, notably the “scratching” on straight-up gospel number “Get Right With Me”, are ill-advised, but Songs manages to avoid self-parody by the seat of its pants, and is a shambolic success because of it. In America, it entered the charts at Number One and then became, almost inevitably, one of those Platinum-selling albums that end up in the cut-out bins. Thereafter, Gahan entered rehab, Wilder exited the band; and, remarkably, Depeche Mode survived to continue making music.

The crazy thing about this saga is that these three albums mark only a quarter of the band’s recorded history. And now it’s ripe for the (re)living, in ear-tickling 5.1 Surround.

Never a dull moment with Depeche Mode.

RATING 6 / 10
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