Black Celebration, Depeche Mode‘s fifth album, was released thirty years ago this week. Things had gone decidedly dark with the preceding album Some Great Reward, a couple of years earlier, and now they would positively celebrate the darkness.
This isn’t honestly one of Depeche Mode‘s albums that I know too well, so there are probably going to be a few surprises here. It opens with the title track, which I’m actually surprised to read was never a single (a live version was on the b-side of A Question of Time, which I suspect is what I’m thinking of). It’s definitely good enough, with a catchy chorus punctuated by curious samples.
Just a few months earlier had come the release of The Singles 81-85, packaging the highlights from their first four albums in one easily digestible package, and one of the b-sides was Fly on the Windscreen, which appears as the second track on Black Celebration. In other circumstances, such an appearance might have seemed a little out of place, but here it fits perfectly. It’s a particularly good song, in especially good form.
It’s finally time for a single, the downtempo A Question of Lust, with Martin L. Gore on vocals. I’ve got a feeling I was nonplussed the first time I heard this, however many years ago that might have been, but now I’m rather fond of it. It is a strange choice for a single, though, so it perhaps isn’t too surprising that it was their worst chart performer since their debut.
The album, meanwhile, was their most successful yet, peaking at number 4, and after the glorious follow-up Music for the Masses only scraped to number 10 a year or so later, Black Celebration managed to hold onto that title for four years.
Sometimes echoes Somebody on the previous album, a piano piece led again by Gore, but ultimately it sounds a bit of a mess, with its extravagant delay, although it ends nicely. Like it or not, it doesn’t last long. The lovely It Doesn’t Matter Two (so named to avoid confusion with It Doesn’t Matter on the preceding album) comes next, closing the first half of the album in particularly stylish manner.
Side B opens with a bang, in the form of third (and, for the most part, final) single A Question of Time. Perhaps for the first time in their career, we see Depeche Mode truly embrace rock music, something they have continued to do ever since. The huge bass line, which used by anybody else might have sounded cheesy, punches out the rhythm of a classic rock track, and the lyrics are brilliantly appropriate. Their chart success was quickly restored.
A Question of Time also saw the first of many collaborations with filmmaker and visual wizard Anton Corbijn, someone whose input seems now to be pretty much integral to Depeche Mode‘s image. Five albums into their career, they were clearly still working out who they were.
Lead single Stripped comes next, a huge anthemic piece with less of a rock feel, but still a noticeable depth, and then we have Here is the House, a pleasant song with more of a pop leaning. Actually, this would have fitted very comfortably on pretty much any of the earlier albums, except the lyrics show a lot of maturity, and they have had a lot of fun with the production. It’s a good song, although ultimately it’s perhaps a little forgettable.
One of the most fascinating things is just how short the songs are. There’s plenty to like, but if you aren’t too keen on something, another song will be along again in a couple of minutes, which is a stark contrast to Some Great Reward. World Full of Nothing is another one that I’d entirely forgotten, but that is actually rather good.
It would be hard to forget the glorious Dressed in Black, which echoes a 1960s pop song, with the pad backing and curiously daft bass line. Again, if you had to pin down exactly who Depeche Mode have become in the last three decades, this would be a pretty good place to start.
The final track is New Dress, with a verse that many (mainly German) imitators would revisit continually for the next decade. Honestly, I’ve no idea what this is meant to be, or even really what it’s doing here, but somehow it seems entirely appropriate as the closing piece for this album.
Some of its contents might be a little forgettable, but for the most part that’s the worst you can say for them. In the end, Black Celebration is a career-defining moment, and is every bit as brilliant as anything they have released yet.
The 2007 remaster of Black Celebration is the definitive one, still available as a single-disc reissue here.