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), 1981’s “Speak & Spell” is a quaint but perplexing time capsule. Opener “New Life” transports the sufficiently mature listener back to the genre’s 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 music’s 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 what’s sandwiched between “New Life” and the album’s equally bouncy and familiar closer, “Just Can’t 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 “I’ll be your operator/I’m in control”. And this mysterious obsession with boys (“Boys Say Go!”, “What’s Your Name?”) wasn’t quite as commonplace in the pop music of the time as it’s become since. In fact, the most old-fashioned track here is the detached, forensic “Photograph”, which suggests a debt to Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s “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 it’s 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 weren’t any less entertaining for it.

DEPECHE MODE Music For The Masses (Mute)

Depeche Mode’s 1987 album is full of the streamlined, shiny, thudding sound of a band preparing for global domination. The puppyish enthusiasm of “Speak & Spell”’s class-of-’81 electropop is long gone, the grace and Úlan they’d 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” aren’t standard stadium-filling fare. Nevertheless, that’s 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”. It’s now 18 years old and do you know what? It still sounds like the best New Order album since “Technique” to me.

Although Depeche Mode’s occasionally bombastic, aloof music is a world away from the slinky fluidity of prime New Order, there are occasions when they approach the Mancunian quartet’s 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 hasn’t aged a second.

If the remainder of “Violator” is inevitably destined to trail behind such a standout, the surprise is that it doesn’t 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 Cash’s cover than does U2’s “One” – but “Halo” maintains a graceful melody beneath its stadium-sized thump. The pixelated waltz of “Blue Dress” is the album’s 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, that’s what you’d be here for in the first place, isn’t it?

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