Have Depeche Mode become irrelevant?

The following may be seen as just this side of sacrilegious by some in the electronic community but upon listening to the incomparable 1985 one-off single “Shake the Disease” it suddenly stuck your humble blogger – Depeche Mode really don’t seem to matter in the big picture anymore. And this realization struck us as so fundamentally sad.

DM are the reason Softsynth became a fan of electronic music back in the early-to-mid ’80s. The music was the soundtrack to our youth, their look and ethos provided us an identity as a typically angsty high school student. No other band played such an important role in this blogger’s life. There was a time when the release of a new DM album was a cause for celebration, for sleepless nights, especially in the pre-internet age when there were no downloads, no leaks, no previews. If you were lucky (and if you lived in this part of North America and were lucky to get Rock Over London on your local radio station) you might hear the lead-off single but that was it. The new Depeche Mode album was to be savoured in its entirety as a fundamentally new, unsullied experience. Black Celebration, Music for the Masses, Violator (as the first DM album purchased on CD since the cassettes were late to arrive at the local Sam the Record Man) – these were the stuff of deep, meaningful memories.

When Sounds of the Universe was released early last year there was an effort to be excited but it never really gelled. The world yawned as sales started big with the die hards buying their copies then dropping off the face of the earth. Softsynth’s initial reaction was a good one, largely out of relief that they managed to maintain elements of what made them the world’s leading electronic band, but as time quickly peeled back the veneer of specialness it became clear – Depeche Mode are not – in 2010 – the same relevant band they were once upon a time.And yes, this is the opinion of one lonely blogger but one with a lot invested in this band. The band that made electronic music cool and not the exclusive property of the tech nerds (god love ’em). A band that has produced some of the best, most meaningful songs the genre has ever known – and Softsynth can say that we own every song, every demo, every b-side ever released by the band. This is not a casual relationship.

Yet, despite the gratuitous grammy nomination this year, each recent release has felt like it meant less, resonated not at all outside the hard-core DM community and cast them as a band that just doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of the music business anymore. The songs are comparatively stale, the tours rote, and recordings unimaginative and the songwriting a shadow of the brilliance we saw from Martin Gore for so many years.  Depeche Mode  have been a case of diminishing returns since the late 90’s.

Why is this (and some would say, “why did it take you so long to realize this??”)? We point to three key reasons:

1. The departure of Alan Wilder. Okay, we’re loathe to join the chorus of “DM isn’t the same without Alan” whiners but there is truth to the whine (though we enjoyed the poke at the Alan-missers – see video below…). From the time Wilder joined the band in 1982 to his 1995 departure following the inspired, if draining Devotional tour they produced some of the greatest albums of our time: Construction Time Again, Some Great Reward, Black Celebration, Music for the Masses, Violator, and Songs of Faith and Devotion. Wilder’s technical proficiency, work ethic and studio creativity helped spur Gore into better and better songwriting. They each balanced the other to creating music that was not just well written but beautifully executed. Since he left the band they have produced four albums, two solid with some great moments, one middling and forgettable and one execrable (the best forgotten Exciter). They occasionally still produce great material – much of Ultra was wonderful (“Home”, It’s No Good”), “Precious” is as good as any of their best songs, “Wrong” stands up surprisingly well, etc – but it’s no longer the norm. They are still capable of greatness but without the ying to Gore’s yang, they are no longer pushed as far as they can be and the results show it.

2. The desperate, cloying desire to be something they are not. Bands should always strive to grow and evolve. Standing still leads to atrophy and no one wants to see a great band atrophy and die. But when a band experiments or mixes up their sound the successful ones do so while retaining what makes them interesting or even great. Radiohead constantly reinvent themselves but it’s always a case of the Radiohead spirit surrounded by different bells and whistles. Goldfrapp constantly reinvent themselves and it doesn’t always work (see=The Seventh Tree) but even their noble failures represent a bold band trying on new hats while maintaining the best of who they are.

Depeche Mode decided in 1993 they wanted to be a rock – sorry, a raawk band – and okay, fine. Songs of Faith and Devotion was a little desperate in places but the sound and the songwriting were still all that DM are when they are at their best. But thereafter, not coincidentally dovetailing with the incidents detailed in #1, the cloying neediness increasingly got the better of the band. The live act in particular began to take the shape of a performance one could get from any band on the planet. Drums were suddenly everywhere, Gore began playing the guitar on every single song, sometimes jamming it in awkwardly and seemed embarrassed about the occasions when he was called upon to play keyboards and their sound became utterly generic. With each successive album and tour this became increasingly pronounced.

In their effort to change who they were they began recording songs like “When the Body Speaks”, a grotesquery that sounded like that song that every hard rock/soft metal band would break out when they wanted to record that token ballad, that track that would be a big chart hit and also make you want to claw your eyes out (“More Than Words” anyone?). The confusion over what made Depeche Mode great became so acute that even when they professed a desire to de facto return to their roots on their last album it came off  as scattered and lacking in authenticity.

3. The decline in original songwriting ideas. Exciter really pulled the blankets back on the paucity of great songwriting that was once the staple of DM. A song like “The Dead of Night” was a cliched throwback to what one would record if they were trying to build the “typical Depeche Mode song”, “Breathe” was pretentious and dull and we’ve already discussed “When the Body Speaks”. Dave Gahan’s foray into songwriting on the last two albums hasn’t added anything meaningful to the mix either, save the surprisingly moving “Nothing’s Impossible” from Playing the Angel. That’s not to say they aren’t still capable of writing great songs. We’ve already mentioned a few above, but considering how consistently interesting, complex, relevant and wholly original they once were, it’s not enough to breathe easier upon hearing a Depeche Mode album and sigh, “whew, at least “I Am You” or “John the Revelator” are pretty good”. Not nearly enough.

We know what folks will say (and we’ve got enough of a history with the band to know how freakishly defensive and passionate DM fans are. Like most fan-boards the DMMB is a place of true fanaticism – we know because we have posted our share of fanatical posts ourselves), we simply don’t appreciate that the band has changed and evolved, we’re stuck in the 80’s, it’s just trendy to knock the band, etc etc. We’ve heard it all before. Interestingly, we’ve said as much to those who would slag the band’s work over the years. But while we’ll still anticipate any future work in the hopes that “this might be the one”, and they’ll likely remain our most played artist in LastFM for the foreseeable future and we’ll still listen to them with fond thoughts every day, we’ve finally come to the realization that while Goldfrapp, or IAMX or Ladytron or dozens of younger bands are the ones bringing forth the most interesting electronic music in 2010, Depeche Mode have become almost an afterthought, no longer the kings, no longer particularly relevant to the movement. We’ll always love them the way one loves an ex spouse they’ve remained somewhat close to, but our love is now rooted in a time gone by.

Watch: Alan Wilder is NEVER coming back to Depeche Mode


5 Responses to “Have Depeche Mode become irrelevant?”

  1. blacktoybox Says:

    Well said. I’m one of those in the Alan camp (Recoil Tour!?!?!) and have actually lost friend, albeit not good ones of the fact that I won’t pretend Martin Gore is some kind of glowing god who shits awesomeness.

    Most music, and there are a lot of exceptions to this but most, are in the vocals and production. Just look at Tori Amos’s cover of 97′ Bonnie and Clyde. I’m not saying lyrics are wholey unimportant and even if that’s all your in it for try defineding “I’m the stain in your bed.”

    Really Martin, REALLY?

  2. Interesting post. A few comments that may or may not apply do DM (beware that my own collection lacks several CDs and ends with Ultra):

    o It is not necessarily wrong for a band to explore new directions, even if they lose both success, artistic influence, and die-hard fans. In the end, we should all strive to do what we find the most fulfilling within the limits (money, time, talent, whatnot) we underly. This need not be something that impresses anyone else.

    Even continuing with something that has become routine is a valid option for those so inclined.

    o In some cases, it may be that there was a certain setting in which a certain group could flourish, grow popular, make an impact, or similar—but that this time just have passed. The Beatles, Glenn Miller, and Bing Crosby would be hardpressed to reach even a tenth of their success were 2010 their respective break-through year.

    o Similarly, looking at any individual, it is possible that a certain group was right for him in 1985, but not in 2015. In particular, there is a fair chance that the group and the individual will develop in different directions.

  3. An interesting and well thought out comment by someone a lot more elequent than i and with much more knowledge of newer electro bands than i. (Just discovered the site while looking up I Start Counting – any idea where i can get full ISC downloads of all their material?).
    I am an avid-buy-anything-they-ever-release DM fan. But as i get older my DM-brain washing is slipping a bit. I totally agree with the Sounds Of The Universe album being their worse effort yet but i don’t think it is through a decline in Martin’s writing. If you have seen the video diaries from the studio sessions you would know that, in my opinion, it was Martin’s obsession with buying old kit and messing around that gave the album, for me, such an incoherent feel. What amazes me is that the same production team that put together Playing The Angel produced SOTU. PTA for me was a massive step in the right direction for DM after the weakness of Exciter. It may not have had 10 solid, superb tracks like early Mode efforts but it had a consistent sound. Dave Gahan’s songs did fit in. The production team needed to take all of the tracks put forward by Martin and Dave and mould them like Alan Wilder would have done. The proof is in the pudding of the tour. Only 3 tracks were played by the end of the tour. They know that the fans want to here the cream of their music and the current album only gave us Wrong and Corrupt (i was greatly dissapointed they didn’t play it live).

    Here’s my take on SOTU:

    In Chains – a sweet song but really needed a harder edge – in the old days would have been relegated to a b-side
    Hole To Feed – awful. Should have been left on Dave’s album. It would have probably been produced better – i would have dropped this completely let alone release it as a single!!
    Wrong – catch, brilliant concept and a great tune. Though i do believe Alan Wilder would have put it a bit more uptempo like the remixes and this would have then been up there with DM’s best singles.
    Fragile Tension – a nice cohesive track. Not a single though. But has the kind of sound the rest of the album should have had.
    Little Soul – if you like Martin Gore tracks then this is a nice one. Again though, needs to be a bit darker. I think, personally, Martin should only be alowed maybe one track per album!!
    In Sympathy – lyrically gets a bit lost – again, a b’side in the old days. Back to awful production again.
    Peace – again, Alan Wilder would have worked this into a good track i think. Though, lyrically it’s far too nice!!! The demo is better than the album version – that says it all, and definately not good enough to be a single.
    Come Back – a great song. Simple, tidy and if it hadn’t been massively overproduced to the point of distortion, would have been an almost single.
    Spacewalker – irrelevant and again, far too nice!!
    Perfect – nice bass but lyrics a bit immature and again – poor production values.
    Miles Away / the Truth Is – almost on a par with my comments about Come Back. An example of Martin and Dave working well together.
    Jezebel – if you had to choose a Martin vocal i find this one of his best vocals in years – not the song or lyrics – but back to his simple vocal style (a la Things You Said).
    Corrupt – NOW WERE TALKING! excellent track – the kind of dark vocals and sound DM should be producing.

    As you can probably tell i’ve thought about this a lot. Even more frustrating is that having the Box Set of the album means you get the outakes too – especially when some of those tracks are better than the album tracks!!

    Here is my version of the album:

    Kingdom (from Dave’s album)
    Oh Well
    Saw Something (from Dave’s Album)
    Fragile Tension
    Come Back
    Miles Away
    Little Soul (with a Dave Vocal)
    In Chains

    “Oh Well”, i would have had not only on the album but as a single. It may have a very simple feel to it but is a great dance track which i think DM should get back to. Ghost, again a nice traxk with potential.

    You will notice a couple of things here, and my other final thoughts:

    There are 5 Dave tracks. I don’t think that matters. I believe that if DM are to come back strong then where the tracks come from are irrelevent. They should not let Dave release an album until they have had best pickings from his songs for the DM album, and i think even if you take Kingdom (by far his best song and as good as Martyr) and Saw Something off his album you can still add Hole To Feed and possibly Miles Away back in to make it a credible album.

    No Martin Solo Vocal Tracks. Controversial for many but its been a while since he put out a Home or Question Of Lust. He should stop “Counterfeit”ing and put these tracks on his solo albums which will leave the darker, heavier tracks and Dave’s track for the DM release.

    I was encouraged, like every electronic music fan to see Alan Wilder on stage with DM at the Albert Hall gig. Ok, it was a charity gig and maybe a one off. And we all know he will not re-join the band. But here’s a thought – Alan Wilder producing the next DM album, with maybe the likes of Flood (we wish!) or for a bit more of a dancier album, someone like Simonen or my choice – William Orbit mixing. DM will only get a coherant sound again with strong influential production.

    That is my master plan to bring DM back where they belong. They will produce another album, and they are the Godfathers of electro alongside Kraftwerk, but how can they take such a backwards step as they did with SOTU. Especially as PTA was the best album since SOFAD.

    Recap –

    How nice would that album sound!

  4. Well said. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I must say, I’ve been of this opinion for at least a decade now.

    The key thing is: Depeche Mode are no longer an electronic band.

    They just aren’t. Now they’re nü-DM (or post-Allen DM? ;). They embellish their music with electronics, but that’s about it; it’s no longer central to their sound.

    Blame ‘SOFAD’, if anything. It changed everything, and not for the best (in my opinion).

  5. ?? no need of further comments…

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