Album Review: Depeche Mode - Best Of Vol.1
...or the shocking true story of a DM addict.
My next hit of Depeche Mode was administered to my system via MTV in the form of their 1984 video hit “People are People.” This was the band’s first big mainstream success in the
The band camped up this image even more with the follow-up single and video “Master and Servant” (a peppy ode to S&M), and the accompanying album Some Great Reward began a stint in my walkman that lasted the entire summer of 1984 and beyond. I was in
At Tower Records in
In the photos on the inner sleeve of their second album A Broken Frame the boys look a wee bit serious, lost in deep thought. Suitably, the dark clouds which appear in the sky on the sleeve image actually do hang over the music itself as well. Fame-shy Vince Clarke had suddenly departed, taking with him a few new tunes (“Only You”) that were written for Depeche but ended up being recorded by
Alan Wilder showed up in time to record 1983’s Construction Time Again, and he apparently brought some Einsturzende Neubauten records with him. With this album, and its hit “Everything Counts”, Depeche Mode took the harsh clamour of the German Industrial scene they were so fond of at the time, and softened it, creating an entirely new sound in the process. According to legend, the band and their Mute Records label honcho Daniel Miller hit the streets with a primitive digital sampler, recording every junkyard clank, factory whistle, and metal-pipe-meets-spoon sound they could muster, creating a fresh, experimental framework for Martin to hang his increasingly gloomy, but continuously addictive songs. I absorbed these early Depeche Mode albums deep into my bloodstream, returning to them again and again over the years to get another dose of their naïve creativity and cold emotion. As I write this, “My Secret Garden” from A Broken Frame is my ringtone.
1985’s dryly titled Catching Up With Depeche Mode was the
The 1987 smash “Strangelove” was a straightforward dance track and hinted at a crisper, bolder sound. It was released well in advance of its accompanying album, but nothing could have prepared the devoted for the massive Depeche Mode narcotic overdose that is Music For The Masses. The album opens with the grandiose and dramatic choir and orchestra swells of “Never Let Me Down Again”, a single that sent shockwaves through Depeche world by featuring an actual guitar riff(!), a motif that was entirely new for the band at the time, but that it would expand upon over the years. Music For The Masses became the band’s biggest international hit to date, and Depechemania hit a peak with a huge world tour including sold-out show at the Pasedena Rose Bowl, documented in the band’s next project, the D.A. Pennebaker live film and double album titled 101.
I nearly wore out my VHS copy of 101,which not only featured an excellent live show, but also fascinatingly documented a contest sponsored by an LA radio station in which the winning fans would follow the band around on a bus during the last part of the tour, with their antics being filmed for the actual movie itself. In a way, it was a predecessor to reality TV, pre-dating MTV’s Real World by several years. I loved the movie, and I could so relate the lucky winning fans, who were made up of a couple of slightly gothy gay boys and their bitchy fag hags, a couple
“Personal Jesus” arrived in the brand new “CD single” format in late 1989, right around the time I landed my first record store job. That song sounded absolutely revelatory and amazing on the store’s massive stereo system, cranked up to full volume after the store was closed. With a bevy of diverse remixes and a running time of nearly 45 minutes, that single seemed like a full album, and my boss and I played it constantly. I remember going insane listening to my boss sing along with the words all wrong (“Reach out and touch face…”) Spring 1990’s rather dark and foreboding Violator became Depeche Mode’s biggest international hit, zooming to number one on charts from Anchorage to Zaire and sold millions.
“Enjoy the Silence” followed suit, accompanied by a breathtakingly gorgeous Anton Corbijn video. This was to be their biggest US hit single to date, and deservedly so – its blend of cold electro and emotional warmth was classic DM and brought on board a whole new generation of admirers. It’s the song the band will probably be remembered best for, with Martin Gore hitting the highest heights of his songwriting ability. The song remains a favorite and has been reissued and remixed more than any other track in the band’s extensive discography.
Another sold-out international tour was followed by a few years off. Martin released the cover record Counterfeit, Alan made a Recoil album, Fletch counted the money and Dave began a classic descent on the downward spiral of rock-star drug drama. Grunge had hit big, and influenced nearly every corner of the music industry. Not even DM was immune to its cultural impact. 1993’s “I Feel You” was filled with insane layers guitar riffs and feedback – the sound was big and mighty. It was quite a shock for fans, but a pleasant one – the sound may have been touched by grunge, but the underlying pulse and sentiment of the lyric was classic Depeche. Even more shocking was the video which revealed a pale, skin and bones Dave Gahan, all tattooed up with shoulder length hair and smeared with eyeliner.
Songs of Faith and Devotion followed and again landed the band atop the album charts around the globe. Sonically, it’s everything-AND-the-kitchen-sink approach resulted in a gigantic and mucky production. Layers and layers of sound and effects come together to create a rather claustrophobic wall of sound. “Walking in My Shoes” was the next bombastic single, saved from the overproduction heap by a sinewy electro bass line and a great Gore-ian lyric (the usual themes: guilt and redemption.)
This wave of success found the band in full-on party mode for the following Devotional tour. These previously clean teens (at least in the public eye) were suddenly interested in good old fashioned rock-n-roll excess: cocaine and groupies, sweaty shirtless photoshoots in LA, spontaneous hotel lounge piano bar performances. I saw the band in
A rather weary 3-piece Depeche Mode made their way back into the studio and the first taste of the new album Ultra was the less-than thrilling “Barrel of a Gun” – with it’s over the top rock vibe and confessional lyric it’s a throwback to Songs of Faith and Devotion rather than the usual step forward DM had always taken – mercifully, they chose to leave it off The Best Of Vol. 1. Faring better was the 2nd single “It’s No Good” which also broke no new creative molds but was a solid club track with a pulsing bassline and a wacky video. The boys seemed tired and chose not to tour behind Ultra, choosing instead to hit the
The sublime acoustic guitar and candlelit drama of “Dream On” was the first taste of 2001’s Exciter album, and with it’s shuffling break beat and spacious production it hinted at a new musical direction. However it turned out to be the highlight on an album that even the band themselves now admit was a bit disappointing. It’s not a bad record by any standard, just kind of boring. For a band who built a career out of dramatically experimenting with the format of pop music and influencing new genres of music, Exciter was simply not up to par. It seemed underproduced and underwhelming.
However, the accompanying tour proved they were back in the swing of things live-wise. I saw them play in Summer 2002 at the George in George, and DM came onstage with a huge, gorgeous sunset happening behind them and played a magnificent set that had the whole hillside full of fans dancing and singing along. Thanks to my friend Misty, we were able to sneak into one of the exclusive box seats that was occupied by some semi-famous
“Precious” was the first hint of 2005’s Playing the Angel album and it was such a marvelous return to form that it made all us old DM fanatics swoon like we were teenagers again. Written for Gore’s children whilst in the middle of a messy divorce, the song’s tender melody and heartbreaking sentiment is met with one of Dave’s finest and most subtle vocal performances. Like the rest of Playing the Angel, it sees DM returning to their old experimental ways but maintains a certain warm familiarity as well. The album was released to rave critical reviews and is considered by many fans to be their best since Some Great Reward (1984), an album it shares some sonic similarities with: the high energy level, the bang and clank of samples, the depth and strength of Martin’s songs and Dave’s voice.
Best of all was “Suffer Well”, the albums 2nd single which was the first Depeche Mode single ever written by Dave Gahan. Dave’s 2004 solo LP Paper Tigers had revealed for the first time that he had a few songs up his sleeve, but nothing on that album hit the ironic heights of “Suffer Well”, an excellent upbeat tune with a endlessly catchy guitar riff, sonically fresh electronics, and a lovely backing vocal from Martin. It’s already one of my all-time favorite DM singles and makes me excited to see how great the next album will be with two excellent songwriters now involved. The Best Of Vol.1 includes the obligatory “new track”, which in this case is “Martyr”, a track that was recorded during the Playing the Angel sessions, but was left off the album due to “not fitting in.” It’s nothing terribly new for the band, but it’s a solid, catchy track and fits in well on this best-of collection.
Although I’ve certainly heard the tracks that make up this collection a zillion times each, and even though I already own said tracks in varying formats, I still delight in The Best Of Vol. 1 each time I give it a spin. It really does represent the toppermost hits of a band which helped define my life, as well as the lives of thousands of other fanatics and casual admirers around the globe. Like The Beatles’ 1 collection from several years ago, we already know the songs up and down, but it’s the new context that lends pleasure to hearing them again. My own selection of the “best” DM tracks might have been a little different, but overall there is no reason to bitch. Plus, it comes with a DVD featuring the videos for all included tracks and a cool documentary about the band. If you are a seasoned veteran DM junkie like myself, of if you’re just dabbling in the stuff for the first time, The Best Of Vol. 1 will surely get you off.
Labels: Music Reviews
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