Depeche Mode? ‘No thanks. I mean its New Romantic, isn’t it?’ All synthesizer and drum machine. As Saxon were telling me back in 1981, it was ‘denim and leather’ that ‘brought us all together’ not blouses and leather. My musically-myopic metal obsession passed mercifully swiftly but I’d still never given Depeche Mode a proper listen, until now.
Depeche Mode’s latest release Spirit starts with Going Backwards and concludes on Fail and includes along the way similarly Ronseal-like titles such as Scum and The Worst Crime. It’s a picture of a world where we have finally arrived in hell in the handcart and drastic measures are needed. As early as track two they are asking us “where’s the revolution, come on people you’re letting me down?”
They don’t specify what kind of revolution and the Left has no monopoly on calls to return power to the people, as we’ve seen but the lyrics on this album seem to put them in the proud tradition of lefty protest. This was confirmed when Richard Spencer US alt-right (some do say neo-Nazi) leader recently claimed Depeche Mode as the “official band of the alt-right” and the band gave a swift response which included ‘see you next Tuesday’. It was the most cloth-eared misappropriation of a band’s spirit since Reagan tried to claim Born In The USA as his campaign song.
I personally have no gripe with multi-millionaires complaining about inequity, others will. Surely there’s room for a drop or two of champagne in socialism? Yes, there’s mention of rich men in Das Kapital but not camels and eyes of needles. The band is proud to have come from the working class council estates of Essex and if they want to write songs about how they feel that the system fails their modern day counterparts, why not? It’s not as though we’re short of other songs from other artists about falling-in-love, falling-out-of-love, wanting-to-be-in-love-again (repeat to snooze).
Grouchiness with a groove
It’s all the more acceptable when the grouchiness comes with a groove, which it does here. Right from the opener Going Backwards we set off at a steady marching tempo that increases to a relentless drumbeat and disturbing synthesizer wail that speak of doomed struggle.
Track two and the first single (or probably download these days) Where’s The Revolution? effectively employs Dave Gahan’s trademark (to me anyway) penetrating, almost-monotone-baritone with an insistent playground, mocking lilt that does indeed make you feel bad for sitting on your arse and firing off the odd angry Tweet rather than doing.. well.. something. It’s in the anthemic tradition of a number of the Depeche Mode songs that have penetrated my consciousness but the insistent, industrial coldness of the synthesiser loops along with the disappointed sneer of Gahan’s voice means it’s far from a feel-good singalong.
The Worst Crime follows and again that crime is apathy and we find ourselves walking up the steps to the gallows to pay the price, though the sentence is delivered with a wistful melody which provides some light in the shade. Similarly with You Move we actually do get a love song, well more of a lust song, with a diversionary, synthy grind.
Cover Me was a favourite of the mid-section; with a building, android beat that took me to somewhere between Blade Runner and Kraftwerk and with Martin Gore’s delicate tenor taking over for hymn-like Eternal the tone grows softer and almost hopeful.
For the home straight we’re back to the contemptuous with a bitter break-up song. But Depeche Mode aren’t all synthesizer and drum machine, in fact Poison Heart is a break up song with a blues feel that I could possibly imagine Amy Winehouse covering (would that she could). But Depeche Mode do do synthesizer and drum machine so very well as with So Much Love, a song hopeful enough in this company to stand out as almost a song from another album “there is something I can’t hide, there is so much love in me” (who’d a thunk that up to this point in the album?). It’s the sort of electropop dancefloor-filler that I would have sat out at the school disco whilst the cooler kids bopped away in metronomic revelry.
Poorman with its vista of tax-dodging corporations, homelessness and begging is perhaps where the message is laid on with the heaviest trowel, further inviting the champagne-socialist jibes. It’s set to a functional rhythm that doesn’t make it a favourite or standout track but any song that has a go at the perfidious fantasy of ‘trickle down’ economics is welcome in my universe. Also, it’s not as though they’re johnny-come-latelys to the lefty bandwagon and barricade, they were there with the similarly reductive critique of the system in 1983 with Everything Counts wherein “the grabbing hands, grab all they can, all for themselves after all, it’s a competitive world” (a handy Tweetable synopsis of Das Kapital, should you be in need of one).
It was never going to end well but —
—the clouds come rolling over again good and proper on the closer Fail. Has Morrissey himself ever wept out a couplet quite this desolate?
Our souls are corrupt
Our minds are messed up
Our consciences, bankrupt
Oh, we’re fucked
A good shout I think to again employ Gore’s almost choirboy tenor on this one which, along with the soaring, church-organ coda, makes for a pretty if not hopeful ending. It was also a good shout for me to finally give Depeche Mode a proper listen. Not as many dancefloor fillers as I’d expected but that reflects my almost wilful ignorance, when I recall the darker rhythms and moods of their later period songs such as Personal Jesus and Enjoy The Silence that even I hadn’t missed over the years. If your early tribal loyalties meant that you too largely gave Depeche Mode the swerve then Spirit’s call to revolution isn’t a bad spot to finally jump aboard– you have nothing to lose but your (musical) chains.