DEPECHE MODE Speak & Spell (Mute)
The first and only Depeche Mode album to exploit the talents of original member Vince Clarke before he left to form Yazoo (and The Assembly, and Erasure), 1981s Speak & Spell is a quaint but perplexing time capsule. Opener New Life transports the sufficiently mature listener back to the genres halcyon days, when no self-respecting practitioner would be caught on Top Of The Pops without a Revox spinning its reels aimlessly in the background. The cod-scientific lyrical philosophising, the musics bright, shiny surfaces yes, it sounds na´ve today, but also sorta lovely.
The dark side of the Mode never reared itself on the Top Of The Pops of the time, which is why much of whats sandwiched between New Life and the albums equally bouncy and familiar closer, Just Cant Get Enough, is gently shocking. I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead might not reference its title in the lyrics, but it casts a cloud over this otherwise sunny song nonetheless. Puppets is rather more sinister, creepiness inherent in lines like Ill be your operator/Im in control. And this mysterious obsession with boys (Boys Say Go!, Whats Your Name?) wasnt quite as commonplace in the pop music of the time as its become since. In fact, the most old-fashioned track here is the detached, forensic Photograph, which suggests a debt to Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Darks Red Frame/White Light.
Throughout, the album employs the kind of rinky-dink melodies that you could probably lash together on a mobile phone these days, and its perhaps telling that the sole musicianship credit which encompasses the entire band is for Synthetics, Voices. Things were so much simpler back then a quarter of a century ago, remember and they certainly werent any less entertaining for it.
DEPECHE MODE Music For The Masses (Mute)
Depeche Modes 1987 album is full of the streamlined, shiny, thudding sound of a band preparing for global domination. The puppyish enthusiasm of Speak & Spells class-of-81 electropop is long gone, the grace and Úlan theyd bring to the New Order-lite of Violator still some way off in the distance. The cover features images of red megaphones sprouting up over the landscape, and carries the strapline Spreading the News around the World (not necessarily good news, note). It enfolds simple songs precision tooled to move air, minds and bodies in large quantities, a kind of sonic propaganda designed for marching rather than dancing, emphasised by the synthesised orchestras and robot choirs that swell the arrangements. The lyrics are saturated with religious imagery, with barely a song passing without a reference to God, confession, forgiveness or sin. Even within its self-imposed restrictions, though, Music For The Masses messes with the form: the clammy, heavy breathing obsession of I Want You Now and the portentuous instrumental Pimpf arent standard stadium-filling fare. Nevertheless, thats what Music For The Masses proved to be, its attendant American tour being documented on the inevitable double live album 101.
DEPECHE MODE Violator (Mute)
When I first heard Violator back in the early 90s it sounded like the best New Order album since Technique. Its now 18 years old and do you know what? It still sounds like the best New Order album since Technique to me.
Although Depeche Modes occasionally bombastic, aloof music is a world away from the slinky fluidity of prime New Order, there are occasions when they approach the Mancunian quartets sweeping synth-pop perfection. Here they do so on Enjoy The Silence, surely their Bizarre Love Triangle (heck, it even occupies the same position here as that song does on Brotherhood, track six out of nine, opening the second side). As romantic as the Mode get, and blessed with a swooping, swooning melody, it hasnt aged a second.
If the remainder of Violator is inevitably destined to trail behind such a standout, the surprise is that it doesnt lag it by much. The Glitter Band clodhopping and light sabre solos on Personal Jesus seem a bit comic the song almost certainly owes more of its iconic status to Johnny Cashs cover than does U2s One but Halo maintains a graceful melody beneath its stadium-sized thump. The pixelated waltz of Blue Dress is the albums smoothest moment, almost catching Martin Gore crooning, and Clean is dark and sinister, suggesting the kind of cleanliness it promotes is perhaps not the one adjacent to godliness.
This limited edition deluxe heavy vinyl reissue does a reasonable job of representing the album. Shorn of the multi-format bonus bits that accompany the reissued CD, all the buyers of the black stuff get is an insightful essay by label boss Daniel Miller and a pretty good pressing of the album itself. Still, thats what youd be here for in the first place, isnt it?