Depeche Mode‘s fourth album Some Great Reward, released an astonishing thirty years ago this week, is always something of an enigma for me – I know there are good tracks on there, but somehow I always forget about them, and therefore the entire album, so when I pick it up to listen, it’s a bit of a surprise.
Released a year after Construction Time Again, this was the album which saw them break the all-powerful American market with the enormous People are People. Having learnt the art of sampling on the previous album, it also saw them now completely comfortable with using “found sounds” and experimenting with their style.
Some Great Reward opens with Something to Do, which still has very strong echoes of the previous album. It’s not about industrialisation or the killing of the planet, but the sound is familiar. In fact, the change in lyrical theme is a marked contrast – Martin L. Gore had explored a number of styles over the first three albums, but the words this time are distinctly sexual, in a way that even later Depeche Mode never really went back to explore.
The softer Lie to Me is a prime example of this, as singer Dave Gahan seems to explore his own naïvety. Then People are People, with its quite incredible industrial samples, sounds almost entirely unlike anything that’s come before. You can begin to see why the USA got so excited about it, although lyrically it’s probably one of the less interesting tracks on the album.
But it’s the songs that you’ve forgotten about that make the best surprises. The original It Doesn’t Matter (followed a couple of years later by It Doesn’t Matter Two when they wrote another song with the same name) is a pleasant slow track with Martin L. Gore delivering his own vocals, supplemented by a lot of sampled noises. Then Stories of Old could quite easily have been a single if it had been on an earlier album.
Side B opens with another Gore vocal, Somebody, which for the uninitiated is a pleasant piano-based track, supplemented by a whole lot of ambient background noise. A few years later, you can imagine that Depeche Mode might have thought it a little over the top, but on this album, despite being a unique song, it somehow seems to fit perfectly.
The experimental vocal samples which kick off Master and Servant provide an unexpected contrast. It’s probably fair to say that, like much of this album, it does sound every bit as old as it is, but you have to admire the sheer gall of releasing a pop song with lyrics about S&M and backing consisting mainly of samples of people hitting things. An unlikely hit, but definitely one to treasure.
If You Want is probably the weakest track on this album. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it – if nothing else, it has some fun sound effects that turn up in the middle – but somehow it just feels a bit like filler after some of the things that came before it. But then the album closer is Blasphemous Rumours, which is worthy of rather more praise.
It’s dark – very dark, actually – and is probably partly responsible for the group’s obsession with the colour black which would start in earnest with the next album Black Celebration (1986). Again, it’s also quite unlike anything else on this album – Some Great Reward is a surprisingly varied release. But more than anything, it was another astonishingly brave decision to release Blasphemous Rumours as the third single from the album. Did they really think any radio stations would play it? Perhaps that’s why it was released as a double a-side with Somebody, although it’s difficult to imagine anybody playing that either. An odd decision commercially, but one which would pay dividends over the rest of Depeche Mode‘s career.
So Some Great Reward sees Depeche Mode still at a relatively early stage in their career, but at one where they weren’t afraid to make extremely brave statements about who they were and what they wanted to do. And while it may not be the best album in their back catalogue, it’s certainly worth picking up every couple of years.