Fifteen years ago this week saw the release of a special one-off Depeche Mode single to launch their beautifully packaged The Singles 86-98 compilation. Having only returned from the dead (literally, in one case) a year earlier, they returned to the studio uncharacteristically quickly and recorded one of the finest singles of their career.
This may be obvious from that introduction, but the lead track is probably my favourite Depeche Mode song to date. In true Mode fashion, it’s overflowing with dark energy, with a beautiful lyric and has some intriguing experimental elements too. It has to be one of Dave Gahan‘s finest vocal performances too. Having come back only a year earlier with gusto on their latest album Ultra, they were really going with all cylinders firing.
There are two b-sides on this single: one vocal and one instrumental. Surrender is the first, and as with the lead track would have fitted perfectly on the previous album. It’s one of Martin L. Gore‘s more soulful bluesy tracks, again delivered perfectly by Gahan. This is followed by the instrumental Headstar. Depeche Mode instrumentals tend to be curious little instrumental tracks driven by a particular sound or sample, and you do have to wonder exactly what Gore’s writing process might involve in these cases. This is no exception, but the flowing synth pads lead through to a darker, more industrial backing, and even a counter-melody. It’s tempting to wonder if this one might have even been intended as a vocal track at one stage.
Anton Corbijn is also on form on this release, with a totally brilliant cover picture showing the ‘DM’ LEDs in an anonymous hotel room, beautifully lit with an orange glow. Truly masterful.
As always in the 1990s, there’s a second CD for the remixes, but this was after the chart rules changed in May 1998, so you only get three. The first is by Subsonic Legacy, a curious choice to lead the disc as it’s a deep and dark dub mix, driven by a grimy bass. You get hints of the rest of the song, and it’s brilliant, but as with a lot of dub mixes you’ll find it a little unsatisfying if you can’t just enjoy it for what it is.
The second remix is by Dan the Automator, and is more faithful to the original, but this also means you’d be much less likely to hear it in a mainstream club, which would normally be the point of a remix. This version changes most of the track, approaching it from a very different angle, but most notable are the new drums and bass, and added vinyl scratching (“no doubt”). But it’s by remaining faithful to the original that it becomes all the more compelling in many ways. You can find this version on their recent collection Remixes 2: 81-11.
Finally on this disc you get a remix of the instrumental Headstar by electronic legend in training Luke Slater. This isn’t one of his finest efforts unfortunately, driven by banging saucepans and a characteristically massive bass part. Whereas the b-side remixes on Ultra really tended to add something to the originals (more on that later) this one does struggle a little.
Released a few weeks later as a special ultra-limited edition, there is also a third CD for this single (or, more practically, you can now find the whole lot in one go on their singles box set DMBX6). This final CD delivers some excellent surprises, kicking off with the first of two versions of the title track by Gus Gus.
Running at a slightly faster tempo than the original, their aptly named eleven minute Long Play mix is brilliant, both faithful to the track and also more dynamic and more suited to the dance floor. I’m not sure I think the higher tempo does a huge amount for the track, but it does fit the remix perfectly. It’s a mix of two halves, as once the main track finishes you then get six minutes or so of deep gargling dub mix, but it’s pretty excellent nonetheless.
Next is a remix so special that it appeared on their original remix collection The Remixes 81-04, the brilliant Kill the Pain version of Painkiller, mixed by drum and bass legend DJ Shadow. Augmented by extra electronic warblings and a whole lot of trippy drum samples, and bristling with energetic samples, what was already an excellent little instrumental is transformed into something really quite excellent.
We then get a remix of Surrender by Catalan FC, which is overflowing with reverb and effects, and completely new electronic backing. It’s not perfect, but it does transform the bluesy original into something much more electro, and is pretty excellent for all of that. This is followed by Gus Gus‘s Short Play mix, which is effectively just the top half of the earlier mix.
Finally, the last track is a bit of a surprise – completely out of nowhere we get a new mix of 1990’s World in My Eyes by Safar. It’s nothing special unfortunately, but it is refreshing to hear such an old favourite again. It opens with one of Gahan’s traditional live statements – “Good evening San Francisco!” and quickly becomes a pleasant but pedestrian 90s house track. It builds into something rather more pleasant over its eight minutes, but it’s not essential listening.
Only When I Lose Myself is a fantastic single, which is accompanied by a great package of bonus tracks and remixes, and proves to me that when Depeche Mode put their mind to writing a new hit single, they really do make an exceptional job of it.
Disc one of Only When I Lose Myself is available on the repackaged version of Ultra if you can still find it anywhere, but the definitive version of the single is in the DMBX6 set here or as a CD on its own here.