March 24 will see the release of Depeche Mode‘s 15th studio album ‘Memento Mori’, an aptly titled return following the death of the band’s co-founder Andy Fletcher in 2022. It’s a relief to hear that remaining members Dave Gahan and Martin Gore have kept the essential ‘Mode vibe intact, with lead single ‘Ghosts Again’ a typically dark electro beauty that promises another strong outing. After all, it has plenty to live up to.
It seems the time is ripe, then, to assess the Basildon band’s weighty back catalogue. Here’s our definitive ranking of every one of Depeche Mode’s albums to date.
‘Construction Time Again’ (1983)
Something has to come last, and what better than the first time Depeche Mode tried going industrial? Inspired by German experimentalists Einstürzende Neubauten, DM decided it all meant moving concrete slabs and hitting pots. Another alarming development was Martin Gore whipping out a guitar for ‘Love, In Itself’ on Top Of The Pops. But for all the rubbish like ‘Pipeline’, ‘Shame’ and ‘More Than A Party’ (rock’n’roll ‘Mode, anyone?), there’s an ‘Everything Counts’ to soothe the pain. Call it a “transitional” record.
After nearly 30 years of exploring the seamy underside of an already pretty sordid experience, Depeche Mode finally allowed the real world to enter their sledgehammer lyrical palette on this 2017 team-up with new producer James Ford. That means “misguided leaders” (spidery ballad ‘The Worst Crime’), “corporations” getting the “breaks” (robot-rocker ‘Poorman’) and Gore declaring “oh, we’re fucked” on the frankly less-than-joyous send-off ‘Fail’. The campaign got off to a roaring start with an unsolicited endorsement from US alt-right bellend Richard Spencer — which Gahan addressed with characteristic Essex brevity (“He’s a cunt”) — but beyond the snarling krautrock throb of ‘So Much Love’ the record peters out, too bleak even for these dukes of dour.
‘A Broken Frame’ (1982)
It could’ve all gone tits-up when Vince Clarke left after their debut album, but Depeche Mode came out fighting with ‘A Broken Frame’. The only plausible reaction to opener ‘Leave In Silence’ is “Good Christ, what have we here?” as it throbs and whumps into DM’s new dark heart. By the time we get to ‘Monument’, they’re inventing techno just like Derrick May always said. Then it all goes cod reggae on ‘Satellite’ and everyone looks awkward.
‘Some Great Reward’ (1984)
On the one hand you’ve got the ridiculous hits like ‘People Are People’ and the S&M festival of ‘Master And Servant’; on the other, the twee ‘Stories Of Old’ and the bombastic void of ‘Something To Do’. Sitting in the middle is Gore’s gorgeous ‘Somebody’, and general critical opinion. We’ll stay on the fence here. It’s the end of the first phase, with the pivotal ‘Singles 81-85’ just around the corner.
A quantum leap into the future now. Depeche Mode had emerged from the grisly old ‘90s with a singer who’d ‘died’ and come back wanting a slice of the songwriting action. Gahan would get that next time around, but Gore is in sole charge here (for the last time, mind), presiding over the masterful, bluesy ‘Dream On’, steam-pump synth ballad ‘Comatose’ and the electro doo-wop of closer ‘Goodnight Lovers’. On the knobs for the one and only time is LFO‘s Mark Bell, creating an album of texture and depth.
‘Sounds Of The Universe’ (2009)
After a four-year break, Depeche Mode’s 12th album found them barely missing a beat, three decades into their career. As on 2005’s ‘Playing The Angel’, Gahan has three songwriting credits — but it’s not helping his state of mind. “Words can leave you broken inside,” he croaks on ‘Hole To Feed’. Elsewhere, he’s behind the snaky acid and thwacking blues of ‘Miles Away/The Truth Is’ and fronting ‘Corrupt’, Gore’s slow-burning, romping bastard which features charming lines, “I could corrupt you / It would be easy / Watching you suffer / Girl, it would please me.” No one’s mellowing around here.
‘Speak & Spell’ (1981)
Back to the start. Now that DM are these grizzled veterans with guitars to rough up their trademark synths and songs that wallow in filth and misery, it’s easy to forget there was a time when they barely needed a razor blade between them and they had that bloke from Erasure at the back. ‘Speak & Spell’ is a glorious synth-pop debut though, from the Kraftwerk-on-poppers ‘I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead’ to ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, a record that’ll still fill floors decades after Gahan’s final death.
‘Delta Machine’ (2013)
Released just 12 months after ‘Ssss’ — Gore’s VCMG collaboration with Vince Clarke — ‘Delta Machine’ sucked up the residue of that retro-techno and spat out a baker’s dozen of tracks that hissed and thumped (‘Heaven’, ‘My Little Universe’) with acieeeed influences… until Gahan remembered he was a hoary old bluesman now. The singer had been working with swamp-rock production duo Soulsavers at the tine, and their grubby spirit seeps into the doom groove of ‘Secret To The End’ and the sleazy grunge of ‘Slow’ on an album light on laughs but heavy on dank, ponderous gothic glam. Party on.
‘Playing The Angel’ (2005)
The best of this century’s ‘Mode output so far, ‘Playing The Angel’ was the first to be helmed by sometime Blur and U2 producer Ben Hillier and the first to feature a smattering of Gahan songs. No matter who’s penning them, the tracks advance like terror machines across jagged industrial dead zones, blasting vicious preacherism on ‘John The Revelator’ and outrageous twisted sirens of guitar on ‘A Pain That I’m Used To’. Then ‘Precious’ is all smooth and propulsive — so many strings to their bow right now.
Gore wrote the songs, but ‘Ultra’ is all ‘Dave Gahan: My Drugs Hell’. Or, ‘Here’s what happened when we met Trent Reznor“. To be honest, DM had given Nine Inch Nails enough inspiration so it’s natural they should reach a similar point. The ‘Mode get there with their unparalleled pop chops intact — see the distorted, propulsive ‘Barrel Of A Gun’ and the muscular ‘It’s No Good’. The uncharacteristic pedal-steel-warmed ‘The Bottom Line’ takes the biscuit, though.
‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ (1993)
In which Basildon Man turned into Baritone Jesus. Utterly off his gourd, Gahan became the bedraggled rock dude, mustering all the righteousness at his disposal to growl over the obscene riffs of ‘I Feel You’, break down before his Lord on the mighty gospel of ‘Condemnation’ and poke about for a morsel of redemption on ‘Higher Love’. ‘Judas’ is a bit Monarch Of The Glen, mind.
‘Music For The Masses’ (1987)
‘Music For The Masses’ is so good that ‘Behind The Wheel’ can start off like Tiffany’s ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ and Depeche Mode still lose none of their black-garbed punch. Other highlights include live perennial — and monstrous career highpoint — ‘Never Let Me Down Again’, perverted electro throwback ‘Strangelove’ and the Satanically miserable ‘Pimpf’, as the band take their first baby steps towards their greatest triumph.
‘Black Celebration’ (1986)
But first, an equally important notch on the ‘Mode trajectory. Coming directly after the story-so-far of ‘Singles 81-85’, ‘Black Celebration’ sounded like relief, as if the teen-pop era (however twisted it was getting) was over and they could now get down to the serious business of singing, “You’re only 15 and you look good / I’ll take you under my wing / Somebody should.” Ohhhhkaaay. Dodgy lyrics aside, the album excels through the bleak title track, Gore’s atmospheric ‘A Question Of Lust’, that dubious live favourite ‘A Question Of Time’, gloomy, needy anthem ‘Stripped’ and the terrific pop-noir of ‘Dressed In Black’. It’s a statement of intent that they continue to fulfil.
After their awesome 1989 live album ‘101’ (not listed here because, well, it’s a live album), everyone knew Depeche Mode were a big deal. To the uninitiated, those plink-plonk Essex synth-boppers had just broken the States in almighty stadium style. It was a bit of a shock to the initiated, too. After ‘Violator’, though, no one was surprised. Trailed the previous year by the twanging, musclebound ‘Personal Jesus’, it presented a ‘Mode as comfortable in their skin as they’d ever been — still capable of pop corkers like ‘Enjoy The Silence’ and ‘Policy Of Truth’, but honing their eerie, threatening ballads in ‘Halo’ and ‘Sweetest Perfection’. Like New Order with ‘Technique’ a year earlier, Depeche Mode had returned better than ever to show the upstarts how it’s done.
Depeche Mode’s new album ‘Memento Mori’ will be released on March 24
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