“Taking a ride with my best friend,” could very easily be a description of Depeche Mode‘s sixth album Music for the Masses, released thirty years ago this week. Now, thirty years on, it all seems very familiar from the singles and the fantastic live album 101, but at the time in the UK, this was actually Depeche Mode‘s lowest selling album yet.
It opens with the second single Never Let Me Down Again, surprisingly only a moderate hit a month or so before the album came out. It’s strange, as it seems such an iconic piece for its time now, but apparently it didn’t seem so back then.
The haunting The Things You Said is next, with a Martin L. Gore lead vocal. Whereas the previous album Black Celebration had purposely tried to challenge listeners, Music for the Masses is, as its title suggests, very much about pop music – and although apparently at the time they thought of the title as a bit of a pun, I think it’s truer than they might have realised. Typically dark Depeche Mode pop music, but pop nonetheless. The Things You Said is slower and more mellow than most of the things on here, but it has a wonderfully soulful side too.
Opening single Strangelove is next, a curiously twisted piece about either hidden fetishes or accepting people for who they are. Towards the end there’s a hint of a bit of the late 1980s 12″ mix, before it mixes into the gloriously sacrilegious Sacred. There’s something beautifully ecclesiastical about it, although ultimately it grows into a fairly traditional Depeche Mode production. It’s a great song.
The France-only single Little 15 completes Side A of the album, an odd but beautiful choice for a single, full of warped strings and mournful piano and vocal samples, without a single drum. It’s difficult to know what could be done to improve it – this is complete perfection.
Side B opens with the other single, the fantastic Behind the Wheel. Again, this didn’t even scrape the top twenty in the UK (although it did make the top ten across Europe), but surely it has to be one of the finest road trip songs you can name.
Depeche Mode produced this album pretty much by themselves, with some help from Dave Bascombe, and this might explain how I Want You Now came to pass. It’s almost all built around vocal samples, which could have worked very badly, but instead it sounds fantastic, and turns what could have been an unusually mundane lyric into something quite fascinating.
Even more experimental is To Have and To Hold, a sweet track that’s built around enormous drums. It’s short, and at the end it slightly uncomfortably mixes into Nothing, a rocky track which here is built around digital synthesisers, but the later remix that replaced them with guitars was none the worse for the change.
Finally, we get Pimpf, the pleasant instrumental that still turns up from time to time as an interlude for TV programmes, and its miniature companion Mission Impossible, which appears right at the end as a hidden track. Honestly and without irony, this is probably as close as Depeche Mode had come to “music for the masses” since their first album.
The original CD release gave you a few extra b-sides, but these were relegated to the bonus DVD for the reissue, and honestly, good though they are, the album feels better without them. Music for the Masses marked a turning point for Depeche Mode, a point where they could pull off a massive 101-date tour closing at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and one which would lay the foundations for the fantastic Violator.
If you can’t find the reissue with the bonus disc, try not to be tempted by the original CD with its bonus tracks, as the sound quality is markedly worse than this 2013 reissue.