Depeche Mode
Photo: Anton Corbijn / Nasty Little Man

Depeche Mode’s ‘Memento Mori’ Is an Embrace of Life in Death’s Shadow

Depeche Mode’s Memento Mori is a testament to the power of art to call us to see more clearly in the absence of resolution.

Memento Mori
Depeche Mode
24 March 2023

Memento Mori. Remember that you must die. A phrase rooted in classical Stoic philosophy and adopted into the religious symbolism of Western Christianity, it has functioned in the art world to signify a work that evokes a sense of mortality and the fragility of life within the art’s observer. Within a Western culture that thrives on denying death, such works often land with countercultural urgency.

As a title for Depeche Mode‘s 15th studio album, the phrase is a poignant testament to the cultural context, stages of life, and the grief that formed the temporal nexus of this record. On 26 May 2022, founding member Andy Fletcher died at the home of an aortic dissection at the age of 60. The loss shook fellow founding members Dave Gahan and Martin Gore. Having already begun work during the pandemic on the material that would develop into their new release, Memento Mori, Gahan, and Gore lamented that Fletcher had not yet been able to hear the new material initially born out of the pandemic’s shadow. In the wake of the loss, they decided to continue with the album and its meditation on the beauty of life in light of its limits. 

Whether intentionally or coincidentally, Memento Mori drops within the season of Lent in the Christian tradition, a penitential season that starts with adherents submitting to being marked by ashes on their foreheads as an embodied memento mori. None of this is a prelude to an overwrought theoretical edifice that reads the latest from Depeche Mode as a religious text. Yet, the band that invited us to reach out and touch faith in a “Personal Jesus” has always exhibited a penchant for tracing the mysterious interplay between the gritty materiality of life and the compulsion to derive some enduring meaning from it. What better fulcrum to leverage such a conversation than the specter of death?

Memento Mori opens in arresting fashion with “My Cosmos Is Mine”. Dull, ominous drum beats conjure images of the rowing of the enslaved galley in the film Ben-Hur intermittently interrupted by flashes of static fuzz, the white noise of post-industrial malaise. Dave Gahan’s vocals appear within the bass line in an almost disembodied fashion, issuing warnings into the void. “Don’t play with my world / Don’t mess with my mind / Don’t question my space-time / My cosmos is mine.” It is an ambiguous address. Is it a declaration? A reclamation of agency? A quixotic denial of reality? A ghostly Greek chorus of voices issuing prayers of protest against war and senseless death joins Gahan’s soliloquy. No feigning gentility in the shadow of that “good night”.

This opening protest is bookended with Memento Mori‘s closer, “Speak to Me”, a series of somber, meditative notes issuing into a prayer of sorts. Within 11 tracks, the address has shifted in tone from an opening declaration of boundaries to a quasi-surrender to the mysteries that vex us. Even in the end, the need for meaning haunts us all. “There’s a message I know can be found / I’m listening,” Gahan pleads, once more into the void. He voices the dawning recognition of the ultimate futility of grasping for solidity in a ceaselessly entropic existence. “You’d be my drug of choice,” he declares, putting his finger on abuses of religion as an insurance policy rather than a guide to clear-eyed awareness. It’s a tempting high but ultimately fleeting.

“Speak to Me” builds in intensity mid-song as discordant notes strike at each other across a rhythmic, marching heartbeat, mixing with static, electrical dissonance until it abruptly ceases. Memento mori indeed. 

Sandwiched within is the distinctive sound and searching lyrics that have marked Depeche Mode’s gripping dark wave synthpop over the decades. As Apple Music’s Zane Lowe pointed out in his recent interview with the group, the unique combination of “dystopian industrial sounds” and “yearning romance” resonates throughout this album and their body of work. The first released single, “Ghosts Again”, is emblematic here as Depeche Mode gestures to fleeting time and how we inevitably become ghosts repeatedly, fragmented specters of meaning haunting the landscape. 

The official video for the song invokes the iconic chess scene with Death from Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal. Like Bergman’s knight in crisis, Depeche Mode traverse the existential landscape at the boundaries of finitude in search of a map that makes sense of the terrain. Like the Seventh Seal, Memento Mori raises questions but never brings resolution. 

Along the way, the journey takes us to many places. “Don’t Say You Love Me” is an ode to how our search for intimacy is one of our first introductions into the finitude of things. “You’ll be the killer / I’ll be the corpse” strikes at the heart of vulnerability, our paradoxical passage to joy and grief. In “Soul With Me”, we encounter the desire to assert agency amid what we cannot stave off. If I’m going down, I’m taking my soul with me. 

“Before We Drown” is an EDM track with a sci-fi feel that gazes honestly at the instability of things where the waters of life inevitably engulf us. One of the most compelling songs on Memento Mori is “Caroline’s Monkey”, an intoxicating homage to the synth grooves and sound effects of 1980s new wave, where the metaphor of the monkey stands in for the impending chaos that order can never shake from its back.

Memento Mori is a testament to the power of art to call us to see more clearly in the absence of resolution. Emerging out of the toll from a global pandemic and the grief of personal loss, Depeche Mode have channeled our vision to the beauty of the moment in dissolution. It is a testament to their continued relevance and the unexpected wonder in remembering our shared condition.

RATING 7 / 10