Saturday, 5 November 2011
68 Music For The Masses - Depeche Mode
Tracks : Never Let Me Down Again / The Things You Said / Strangelove / Sacred / Little 15 / Behind The Wheel / I Want You Now / To Have And To Hold / Nothing / Pimpf
This was bought on a Saturday, the last weekend before starting the 4-month Graduate Conversion Course required before beginning my accounting studies proper. I wasn't looking forward to it to say the least. Not only was it going to be intense , covering subjects that (with the partial exception of Law) I had no real interest in but it would entail a wearying daily commute to Liverpool, not my favourite city by any means. I did have the option of staying there during the week but that was even less appealing. So I had something of a condemned man feeling that weekend and was hoping the 'Mode would cheer me up.
This was Depeche Mode's sixth album and a pivotal one in their career, moving them into a different league in terms of both sales and critical respect. However I agree with Tom Ewing's view that this was when their output started to decline. The album contains probably their greatest single but also some seriously substandard material particularly on the second side.
It begins brilliantly with their masterpiece "Never Let Me Down Again" ( which rang some commercial alarm bells by peaking at 21 as a single ) . The rumbling groove and stark piano owe something to Talk Talk's Life's What You Make It but this is the superior song. It's magnificent in its ambiguity with Dave Gahan singing of a euphoric journey - "never want to come down never want to put my feet back down on the ground " - and the music suggesting it's a one-way ticket to somewhere very nasty. Gore throws some rock guitar into the mix to give the menace added muscle and the whole thing builds to a terrific climax with Gore singing an alternative chorus behind Gahan's despairing pleas and Alan Wilder's Gothic keyboard chords.
There's an immediate comedown with the muted "The Things You Said" a lament for betrayal sung plaintively by Gore over a soft synth pulse with no percussion until the final third of the song. There's a typically DM simple keyboard melody line for a chorus but the second melody line is a bit too close to OMD's Almost for comfort.
A re-recorded version of "Strangelove" , the lead single comes next. A slower, sparser take tied to a remorseless backbeat it's a good illustration of the band's desire to move away from instantly accessible pop . The song remains a fairly routine Gore confession of dark sexual intent, a theme pursued to wearisome length on this LP.
"Sacred" equates Love and God beginning with some medieval chanting behind the synth drone. Gore's lyric avoids the gaucherie that marred some of his earlier romatic treatises but musically it's a bit too similar to "Stories Of Old" from two albums back and for the first time the band sound like they're treading water.
"Little 15" takes a step nearer the paedophilic cliff edge than "A Question Of Time" from the previous LP. This time Gore uses the second person ( possibly at Gahan's insistence ) to deflect the inference. Whatever the intent it does work quite well as a piece of sinister chamber-pop with Philip Glass influences and nearly made the charts as an import single the following year.
Side Two begins with third single "Behind The Wheel" which nods to current dance trends with its relentless house beat. The song, jointly sung by Gahan and Gore is about abject surrender - "Do what you want , I'm going cheap" - to another "little girl". Unfortunately it has the most boring melody on the album, no chorus and ironically, given the driving metaphor doesn't really go anywhere.
"I Want You Now" is better making good use of looped vocal noises (including the urgh-ahh effect suggestive of bonking also used that year on Fleetwood Mac's Big Love ) to create a suitably Gothic frame for Gore's song of wanton lust. Gore takes the lead vocal on this slow and solemn tune.
It ends with a spoken passage (in German I think) which segues straight into "To Have And To Hold" an industrial grind again without much of a tune and Gahan going as low as he can to deliver another self-abasing lyric. With its protracted intro it seems to end before it's really got going.
And then they pull out another corker, "Nothing" , probably the most utterly nihilistic track in my collection. A down and dirty basline kicks it off before Gahan's suitably enervated vocal comes in ; his drawled delivery of the word "Life" at the beginning of the second verse is terrifying . He rouses himself for the pounding chorus ( a trick they've used before on "People Are People" and "New Dress" but it works again here) which actually compounds the misery by acknowledging there's nothing new to say about the human condition. For a band that scored its first hit with the surging optimism of "New Life" this is astounding and they haven't come up with anything better since.
The album closes with the Wagnerian instrumental "Pimpf" ( a German word meaning young acolyte) based around Alan Wilder's circular piano riff which runs throughout the song. It builds well enough with the entrance of gotterdammerung chants and church bells but they don't quite pull it off.
As hinted at earlier this disappointingly patchy album proved to be a major turning point in their fortunes. Although it seemed to herald commercial decline in the UK with only one single breaching the Top 20 and the album quickly departing the charts it maintained their upward momentum in Europe and crucially the USA where their 1988 tour crowned their adoption by the nascent alt.rock culture. It also helped that Detroit's hip house DJs started naming them as a major influence. Their next LP of new material was three years later and benefitted from the break.