Depeche Mode – Ultra

In the four years since Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993), Depeche Mode had shed a member and come dangerously close to losing another permanently, as Dave Gahan hit an extremely low point and nearly died of an overdose.

So it’s hardly surprising that Ultra, released twenty years ago this week, is a dark album. From the very first opening sounds of first single Barrel of a Gun, you can tell they’re exploring grimey territory. But there’s also something overwhelmingly positive about it – the delivery is punctuated by a confidence and force that I’m not sure we had really heard before.

It is said that they only went back into the studio to record a couple of new tracks for a best of album, but discovered a new energy and ended up with an entire studio album – and it’s easy to believe. Working with Tim Simenon of Bomb the Bass as producer, they seem to have re-emerged from their life-changing four year hiatus with something quite extraordinary.

In a way, the album tracks are more interesting than the singles – The Love Thieves is a soft and uneventful track which is elevated to something beautiful by its production. Then comes Home – and remember that some of Martin L. Gore‘s more introspective songs in the past have taken an under-produced approach. Home definitely isn’t one of those; instead, it’s full of huge orchestral flair, making it one of Depeche Mode‘s most beautiful songs.

This leads us to It’s No Good, the second single and without a doubt the most commercial track on here. There’s still a definite air of darkness, but this is also a great pop song, and was deservedly a significant hit.

What makes this album stand out so many years later is its sense of spaciousness. Pretty much nothing on here is less than four minutes long, and everything has been expanded, so there are huge gaps between vocal lines and verses. The miniature instrumentals, like Uselink, had for many years been key to Depeche Mode‘s sound, but here they add to the experience on a basic level.

This makes it all the odder that when you first listen to Ultra, there’s a decent chance that you won’t like it very much. This is an album that demands at least four or five listens before it starts to get under your skin, but as soon as it does, it really won’t leave you alone.

Useless was the last of the singles from this album, and it’s with this track that you really find Depeche Mode‘s new sound – it’s rhythmic and danceable, but it’s very definitely rock. There are elements of many of their previous guises hidden in here, but it also sounds quite new. Honestly, even twenty years on, this wouldn’t sound too out of place today either.

Then we get Sister of Night, which could have easily kept its head down and just been another album track, but the huge, effect-laden melody that opens the track and reappears from time to time throughout really grabs you and makes you pay attention, and as you do, you realise that this is an incredibly beautiful song.

After Jazz Thieves, another of the little instrumentals, comes Freestate, an excellent opportunity for Dave Gahan to demonstrate himself to be a truly amazing vocalist, which might have been obvious to some a few albums earlier, but then the UK had never really given Depeche Mode the attention they deserved.

After that comes the daft but sweet The Bottom Line, starting off sounding as though it might be about a cat and punctuated by cat-like synth wails, and then the last proper track Insight, which echoes It’s No Good somewhat, but is otherwise a sweet and uplifting closer. Apart, of course, from the hidden bonus track, an instrumental colloquially named Junior Painkiller, which turns up a few minutes after the end.

Ultra was always emotional but mature, and every bit as good as Depeche Mode needed to be at that stage in their career, but it’s encouraging to see that it has aged so well, and it’s a relief that the three remaining members were all present and correct.

The 200x double CD reissue is the definitive version of Ultra, but if this is no longer available, go for the remastered reissue instead.

Depeche Mode – Speak & Spell

This week we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the debut Depeche Mode album, Speak & Spell. Vastly different from anything else the group have ever released – A Broken Frame shares some sonic similarities, but that’s about the only thing you can say – it really shares as much with Vince Clarke‘s later work as it does the artist whose name on it.

So you could probably forgive Depeche Mode fans for disliking this album, but really there’s something rather charming and fascinating about it.

It opens with the hit single New Life, which had hit the chart four months earlier and provided their first major hit. By the time the album came out, all three singles had been released already, so there were never too many surprises here. What is a surprise is just how far the group have come in the subsequent three and a half decades. With Vince Clarke at the helm as the main songwriter here, the focus was very definitely on pop music at this point.

I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead, despite the alarming title, is a short and sweet pop piece which is sufficiently different from its neighbours to guide us through smoothly to the darker PuppetsBoys Say Go! follows, and for many acts might well have been a huge hit single, but for Depeche Mode it’s just an album track. There isn’t a hint of Personal Jesus here.

Nodisco is a delightfully ironic disco track, and then the ridiculously pop-sounding What’s Your Name? closes Side A. It’s quite bizarre – absolutely nothing else Depeche Mode have ever recorded sounds like this, and yet it reminds me a lot of Yazoo. Not too surprising, until you remember that there were four people in Depeche Mode at this point, and three of them weren’t Vince Clarke.

Side B opens with the brilliant Photographic, perhaps the first moment since New Life that you realise quite how brilliant Depeche Mode are going to become once they get going properly. The more raw version on the Some Bizzare Album from earlier in 1981 is definitely better, but the album take is rather exceptional too.

At the end, it quietly morphs into the first of two Martin L. Gore-penned pieces, Tora! Tora! Tora! I doubt you would have noticed at the time, and maybe I’m pinning my expectations onto it, but it definitely sounds more experimental than anything we heard on Side A. You could probably also argue that Gore wasn’t quite at his best yet in terms of songwriting, although the chorus is great. And Dave Gahan‘s pronunciation of the line “You played a skellington” still amuses me every time I hear it.

Until A Broken Frame appeared barely a year later, the remainder of Gore’s songwriting legacy was represented by the instrumental Big Muff which follows. The lovely and dreary b-side Any Second Now comes next, in a new version, before passing the baton to its a-side, the adorable Just Can’t Get Enough.

For the most part, the singles are the highlights of this release, and the latter two at least have had so much radio airplay over the years that they’re difficult to forget. Debut release Dreaming of Me is less well known, and didn’t actually make it onto the original version of the album, but it got tacked on in a few different countries, so the reissued version includes it right at the end.

In many ways, Speak & Spell is more of a precursor to Depeche Mode‘s career than a debut. Apart from the lineup changes and the evolution of their sound, the artwork is particularly fascinating – the swan wrapped in cling film was heavily obscured for the original 1985 CD release, and is considerably more provocative than anything on the album. The photographer Brian Griffin returned for the cover of their next album, and that one is often cited as one of the finest album sleeves ever. This one is less well understood.

If you can find the double disc version of Speak & Spell, that’s the one you want – if not, forego the extra tracks in favour of less tinny sound, and grab the remastered single disc.

Depeche Mode – Exciter

I wonder if Depeche Mode fans just don’t like the idea of being happy? That’s one possible explanation for why they might not be too fond of Exciter anyway. But it celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this week, and so like it or not, now is a good time to give it a listen.

It opens with the excellent Dream On, an unusual opening single for the trio, as it’s immediately accessible and enjoyable – often they seem to prefer to challenge their fans with something obscure as a first single. It really sets the mood for the album – after a number of increasingly dark and introspective releases, Exciter found Depeche Mode in their happiest state of mind for years, and this is reflected in the music.

Shine is another example of this – it has a slightly dark side in the bridge, but even so it’s hard to imagine something like this being included on Ultra (1997) or Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993). There’s almost more in common with their first two or three albums than anything recent, and that’s very refreshing.

It blends into The Sweetest Condition, which at least borrows some slide guitar from the preceding album, and then When the Body Speaks might be one of the most beautiful songs Depeche Mode have ever recorded, with the gentler strumming allowing Dave Gahan to deliver a much more sensitive vocal than he otherwise might.

Their dark side is still there, as The Dead of Night amply demonstrates, although some might suggest that it isn’t quite as sincere as on previous releases. Perhaps surprisingly, contemporary reviews seem to have picked this track out as one of the highlights from Exciter while much of the album was dismissed as vacuous, but to me that just demonstrates Depeche Mode‘s greatest strength – even with three and a half decades of albums behind them, they are still able to surprise and perplex their listeners. You might not like everything they’ve done, and honestly neither do I, but we have to agree that they’re always interesting.

The short instrumental Lovetheme carries us through to the beautiful and unshakable Freelove, one of many songs which, when they play live, the audience continues to sing long after it’s finished. It’s so serene, in fact, that it’s rather difficult to actually write a review without singing along yourself.

Martin L. Gore turns up in person to deliver the curious Comatose, and then we launch headlong into the brilliant I Feel Loved, a modern disco anthem every bit as good as the one it’s surely almost named after. It’s difficult to understand how anybody could dislike anything this good. Then Gore turns up again on Breathe, before the short and very sweet instrumental Easy Tiger.

I Am You is a surprising penultimate track – it would be easy to dismiss it without much thought, but it’s actually rather catchy and atmospheric, and after that comes Goodnight Lovers, which might be the best song on here. I don’t think Depeche Mode had ever done anything quite like this before, a very gentle, lullaby-like song which would later make a very effective limited edition last single before they went off to their respective solo projects for another three or four years.

Ultimately, Exciter seems to be difficult to dislike. There are moments when you wonder if they’re trying to channel their own past a little too much – particularly the Violator album – but if nothing else it’s very refreshing to see Depeche Mode look on the bright side for once.

If you can still get your hands on the double disc edition of Exciter, this is the one to go for – otherwise the original release is still widely available.

Artist of the Week – Depeche Mode

Trawling through the archives, I found this, the text I put together for Depeche Mode when they were featured as artist of the week on my old radio show Music for the Masses. I’ll apologise right now for any unintentional plagiarism, errors, or particularly rude statements about group members that follow.

Depeche Mode formed from a group of school friends in 1981, and the group was one of the first signings to Daniel Miller‘s Mute Records. Two of the singles from their first album Speak and SpellNew Life and Just Can’t Get Enough reached the top ten, but shortly after the release of the album, principal songwriter Vince Clarke decided to leave the band to pursue other projects. The band pulled together, and Martin Gore took over songwriting duties.

Over the course of the 1980s, Depeche Mode began to pick up a substantial underground following, and travelled much of western Europe recording, and across the world touring. They reached their live pinnacle in 1988, when 75,000 people packed out the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

Throughout the 1990s, their following has continued to grow, and the quality of their music has continued to excel. Their 1990 album Violator yielded several substantial hits, and became the first of three number ones in the UK.

The mid-1990s saw them hit traumatic times, as they lost long-standing member Alan Wilder, leaving them with only Martin Gore, singer Dave Gahan, and general dogsbody Martin Fletcher, whose main function in the band seems to be to wax lyrical about their 1986 album Black Celebration.

At this time, Dave Gahan was going through extreme drug problems, and generally it was thought that the band would split up, but somehow they fought against the odds, and came back in 1997 with Ultra, one of their best albums to date.

Their must recent album Exciter was released in 2001, and saw them return to a more upbeat style for the first time in a decade, and after spending last year [2003] immersed in solo projects, they will be returning at the end of October [2004] with a triple CD package of old, new, and previously unreleased remixes.

Chart for stowaways – 27 February 2016

Let’s take a look at this week’s top ten albums, still with a profusion of Bowie, and rightly so…

  1. New Order – Music Complete
  2. Conjure One – Holoscenic
  3. Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 1: The Time Machine
  4. Roísín Murphy – Hairless Toys
  5. Little Boots – Working Girl
  6. David Bowie – Best of Bowie
  7. David Bowie – Nothing Has Changed
  8. David Bowie – Blackstar
  9. Leftfield – Alternative Light Source
  10. Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Angels & Ghosts

Chart for stowaways – 13 February 2016

A little delayed, but here are the albums:

  1. New Order – Music Complete
  2. Conjure One – Holoscenic
  3. Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 1: The Time Machine
  4. Róisín Murphy – Hairless Toys
  5. David Bowie – Nothing Has Changed
  6. Little Boots – Working Girl
  7. David Bowie – Best of Bowie
  8. David Bowie – Blackstar
  9. Leftfield – Alternative Light Source
  10. Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Angels & Ghosts

The Stowaway Awards 2016

Here are the winners of this year’s Stowaways:

Best Track

As announced over the New Year, the winner of this year’s Best Track award was New Order feat. Elly Jackson, with Tutti Frutti.

Best Album

These were the nominees:

  • Camouflage – Greyscale
  • Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Angels & Ghosts
  • Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?
  • Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 1: The Time Machine
  • Leftfield – Alternative Light Source
  • Little Boots – Working Girl
  • Marsheaux – A Broken Frame
  • MG – MG
  • Roísín Murphy – Hairless Toys
  • New Order – Music Complete

The winner is New Order!

Best Reissue / Compilation

  • Air – The Virgin Suicides
  • Delerium – Rarities & B-Sides
  • Erasure – Always – The Very Best Of
  • Everything But The Girl – Walking Wounded
  • Faithless – Faithless 2.0

With an exceptional selection of b-sides, mixes, and rarities, the winner is Everything But The Girl, for the special edition of Walking Wounded.

Best Video

  • Étienne de Crécy – Hashtag My Ass
  • Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – All of This and Nothing
  • Hot Chip – Huarache Lights
  • Leftfield & Sleaford Mods – Head and Shoulders
  • Little Boots – Better in the Morning

The winner is Leftfield.

Best Artist

  • Camouflage
  • Sarah Cracknell
  • Hot Chip
  • Jean-Michel Jarre
  • Leftfield
  • Little Boots
  • Marsheaux
  • Roísín Murphy
  • New Order
  • Soulsavers

Winner: Hot Chip.

Best Live Act

Winner: Little Boots.

Best Ambient Track

Winner: Jean-Michel Jarre and Lang Lang, for The Train and the River.

Best Remix

Winner: Röyksopp, for The Presets‘ remix of I Had This Thing.

Best Dance Act / Remixer

Winner: Étienne de Crécy.

Outstanding Contribution

  • Erasure
  • Everything But The Girl
  • Hot Chip
  • Leftfield
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Winner: Erasure.