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In high school, I was sent–as we could now do this–“Enjoy the Silence” in trade from someone I knew at the time (previously mentioned as responsible for the purchase of another album on my behalf), but, somewhat oddly, it had little resonance with me. This is odd, of course, because I’ve had a life-long love of synthesizers and 1980s musical styles–a sort of misaligned nostalgia, I guess you might say. It’s that much more odd when one considers how many covers of Mode songs are out there,¹ including plenty by bands I liked at the time. It gets that much more odd when one includes the fact of my rather bizarre–embarrassing, no doubt, if I were anyone but me–love of the Erasure song “Always”, established many years prior when I was all of ten or eleven years of age (I only bought I Say I Say I Say last year, despite spending every trip to a used record store in those days looking for it, simply because of that song). If that means nothing to you: Depeche Mode’s original leader was Vince Clarke, who left after Speak and Spell to form, well, Erasure (okay, after a few other bands, but, still…)
Covers would of course flit by–particularly Rammstein’s version of “Stripped” (which omitted the last four words of the chorus’s titular refrain) and A Perfect Circle’s nearly unrecognizable version of “People Are People”. Bands I’ve loved for years–Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral was one of the first albums I ever relentlessly pursued–would mention them as an influence, and the name continued to filter down, but I didn’t recall a single song I’d ever heard, beyond the rather glossed over single listen to “Enjoy the Silence” as I was directed to it–heck, might’ve been one of the 24+ versions of the song that the Mode have released over the years, and not the original album or single mixes.
It was during one of my most adventurous musical phases that a fancy version of a DM album appeared in front of me and I decided to gamble on it all–1986’s Black Celebration, which was packaged with a short DVD documentary and DVD-A of both the album and a few associated tracks, most importantly including the rather unusual (for them) non-album single “Shake the Disease”. That was the song that finally clicked with me–and the album followed not far behind, and then so did the rest, and the remixes and b-sides, and all sorts of other madness, eventually leading to the more casual but deliberate purchase of Some Great Reward on vinyl, no more than a year and a half ago.
“Something to Do” makes it immediately apparent that this was an electronically driven band–all synths, drum machines, keys–and one oriented, as often happens with that make up, on beat and “danceability”. I’m not a dancer–not even in the “go out to a club” sense, so it may only be theoretical, but it’s definitely at least that. Strange sounds actually precede the track proper: weird burblings that turn to a nervy, deep beat. Dave Gahan’s voice is a smoother sound over it, though it has the slightest cracks of desperate tension in it. Martin Gore’s backing vocals are rapid and even more openly cracking–the song focused on boredom with sexual undertones, but a big hint of quiet desperation of a kind (“I can’t stand another drink/It’s surprising this town/Doesn’t sink[…]Your pretty little dress is oil stained/From working too hard/For too little”). There is a peculiar bridge of flattened horn sounds that, if they had been untouched, would’ve seemed quite incongruous, yet the flattening of their sound works them in perfectly to the rather frenetic opener.
The beginning of “Lie to Me” is a bit more refined, a mix of unusual sounds that form a melody and texture that is built on a distinct beat but works more toward the atmosphere than the beat. It’s a peculiar layering of airy hisses and repetitive keyboard lines. It’s typical Mode in many senses: vaguely dark, vaguely sexual, but reliably comfortable in themselves for this, while also avoiding any extreme movements in either direction to really push away those who would not be drawn to either (or both, especially in combination). Martin’s backing vocals are somewhat harmonized and lay in the song easily but without disappearing completely into the frame of it all. It’s largely his voice that drew me to the band via “Shake the Disease”. He has a very tremulous quaver in his rather high voice that just exudes a kind of sincere vulnerability, put to even greater effect as a lead on appropriate songs (one of which appears on this very album!).
Almost guaranteed the most famous song on the album (though actually one of three singles released from it), “People Are People” is one of the first Depeche Mode songs I ever knew, though I knew it in a severely altered cover form, as mentioned previously. While Martin is credited with writing it, he’s been known to make clear his disinterest in it at this point–allegedly suggesting it was a bit too “on point” for him, and devoid of ambiguity. It’s a mess of peculiar, metallic sounds–many the kind that would later be identified by much of the public with “industrial music” (though typically this was a reference to early industrial metal, like Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, rather than the more difficult and bizarre work of, say, Throbbing Gristle). Gahan’s vocal is frustrated and accusatory–appropriate in a song that’s based on what is indeed a very clear message: “People are people so why should it be/You and I should get along so awfully”. Gore’s voice, again, is the hook for my ears–be that odd or expected. His voice is, like many times it appears in their career, recorded in a fashion that gives it a few peculiar qualities; there’s a sort of closeness to his voice, and there’s a kind of clarity that is absent in Dave’s singing, though it’s not something that would fit with or make sense for his voice. It’s a deserving hit all the same, and may be a solid reference point for anyone who is a bit of a Depeche Mode neophyte (even moreso, that is, than myself).
Gore has not often been inclined to write terribly happy songs and has admitted this himself–and, in truth, “It Doesn’t Matter” is tinged with darker edges, but it’s largely hopeful, thoughtful, peaceful and happy. He sings the lead on it, in fact singing it alone. The music is heavy on electronic sounds–the sort of dancing electronic chimes that have been used with early CGI² to represent the relaxed atmosphere of brightly coloured aquatic life. It’s a bit like bubbling, which is why I think it was used that way–but there’s this sort of flat horn that honks its way in at the end of some of Martin’s lines and is like an elbow nudged at the ribs to grab your attention, point it toward something–though I’m not sure what exactly. It’s as if to imply the semi-broken nature of Martin’s happy thoughts: he is thankful for someone who is not quite there, thoughts he finds embarrassing. It’s a sweet song, which is intentionally “marred” by that noise, it seems, to toughen the mushiest bits, perhaps.
In completely the opposite direction, we find “Stories of Old” and one of Dave’s most appealing vocals. Musically somewhat “mysterious” and sparse at open, it adds peculiar layers of keyboard, non-verbal backing vocals and synthetic horn stings. Gahan describes a positive desire, and the “stories of old” that describe abandoning the gains of single lives for love–and then immediately stamps out the idea of replicating them, suggesting neither he nor the person he sings to is or should be moving toward such a compromise. It’s most evident in the first lines, which reappear throughout, punctuated with the horn stings, and twisted into sharp and rhythmic endings by Dave’s own voice: “Take a look at unselected cases/You’ll find love has been–wrecked.”
Interestingly, they couched Gore’s most romantically dismissive song between “It Doesn’t Matter” on the one side, and “Somebody” on the other–while both are twisted at their ends to admissions of embarrassment and self-critical eye-rolling at their very notions, their sincerity isn’t questioned even then. “Somebody” is the most acoustic of tracks–Gore sings alone to piano (which, I have to add, he apparently played naked in the studio for that extra touch of vulnerability). While the prior two tracks suggested a relationship that hasn’t blossomed (and might never), and one that was being stopped from doing so, this one is about an ideal relationship–an honest and open description of selfish desires, but manifested in a rather appealingly symbiotic and even relationship. That thing I mentioned before about Gore’s voice being vulnerable? It makes it perfect–while he wrote eight of the nine songs on the album, he clearly does not sing them all, and this helps to both clarify why he sings the ones he does and emphasize that differing vocal quality. There’s a clever addition (it’s apparently an unstated fact that most “clever additions” to Depeche Mode songs are the fault of Alan Wilder, until, of course, he left the band) in the form of sampled street noise that hovers around the track–I forget if they layered it in in the studio or recorded it “live”, but it places Gore in a real context as he sings, until it slowly transforms into an overpowering heartbeat instead: as if to say, he expressed these thoughts from the midst of the rest of humanity, but it’s an intensely personal set of thoughts–at least, that’s what I hear, in my strange little way.
The second single from the album, “Master and Servant” is endearing and “cute” as a song can be when its subject matter is pretty explicitly BDSM (I suppose you might have guessed that from the title–else you likely have no idea what those letters are, I’ll guess). The strange vocals that open it sound as if they are sped up samples of vocal tracks that appear later in the song, but here alternate high and low: “It’s a lot/It’s a lot/It’s a lot/It’s a lot/It’s a lot…like life”. Faked whip sounds (apparently just Wilder hissing and spitting!) and metallic clangs bring the song into the same sonic arena as “Something to Do”, but with a darker edge–though a “darkness” and “edge” that remain thoroughly unthreatening. The boys sound very much as though they are somewhat new to the idea of dominance and submission, but manage to convey it reasonably well (he said, as a non-practitioner, but one who has known some), both avoiding any false sugar-coating and any fear-mongering. Gore even works in a lyric that associates it with the perversely (ahem) inverted dynamic of control through voluntary loss of control, and the contrast this has with the unavoidable submission of most lives to the demands of society (if not accurate, certainly a reasonable understanding of the appeal). I will say the single never made much sense to me–perhaps because it holds neither taboo nor personal appeal for me, or perhaps because the chorus has always struck me as just slightly awkward. Of course, the production work behind the track makes this something totally unimportant–just a strange choice for a single.
The only song not credited to Gore, Wilder’s “If You Want” is crawling and odd, if only in the context of Gore’s songs. It’s still thoroughly accessible and appealing, but its usage of keys is strangely buzzing and hazy. It’s something like a mix of darkened, foggy moors and semi-campy (though serious) mysterious tones. It gains a beat shortly, and works it into that atmosphere, shedding a lot of the peculiarities and fitting more completely in with all of the previous songs more readily. It’s actually one of the few tracks that might place music ahead of lyrics and vocals–maybe that’s something to do with Wilder’s influence, as he is known to have been far more invested in the production angles of the group’s sound, and is given credit for much of what made them most popular in their heyday. Or, perhaps it was just a choice for the track!
The last song on the album was also the third and final single for the album: “Blasphemous Rumours”. It’s significantly longer than any of the others (over six minutes) and runs through more serious changes–or at least a greater number of them–than any of the others. As it starts, the album version of the song is subdued keys and a light melody, enhanced by another “industrial” beat, then expanded with a synthetic bassline. Rolling metal clatter adds a splash of chaos. Gahan’s vocals are vaguely sardonic, speaking of a girl who attempts suicide, and the reactions of her mother when the attempt fails–if any of the other tracks on the album could be called dark, then this is pitch black. Of course, it’s black humour (or at least bitter cynicism), which the chorus makes clear: “I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours/But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humour/And when I die/I expect to find Him laughing…” It’s a strangely cheerful, catchy, poppy chorus, and it balances well with the darkness of the verses. If you don’t hear the words, it might sound an awful lot like a general 80s synthpop tune, perhaps one tacked onto closing credits of a movie from the same time frame. While lyrics are often not something that factors into my understanding of or appreciation of a song, it’s not an impossibility, and this is definitely an instance in which it does so quite readily–it’s clever, and it works very well.
This was only Depeche Mode’s third album, the first being the one previously mentioned as being written largely by the now-absent Vince Clarke, and the follow up A Broken Frame being considered a bit of a stumble as the remaining members found their feet. Some Great Reward functions very much as a progression along the way toward future monsters like Violator or Music for the Masses, as it still has the relative limitations of the band’s early work, while Gore has gained leaps and bounds at songwriting, and the sound of the band has become established; in many ways, this is sort of like the “real” beginning of the band (a sentiment I think the band itself has expressed, in fact). Depending on your taste, this might be the first or last place to start–Gahan and Gore both have strong voices that don’t date the material overmuch, but the electronic instrumentation definitely gives it a clear time of origin, and it does take a good listen to get past that, if it is the kind of thing you find offputting–and, in truth, that’s exactly the attitude I intend to spread: avoid leaping too quickly from that first impression, particularly if something is recommended. Someone has seen something interesting there–it may be worth a bit of a dig to find.
- Next Up: Diabolical Masquerade – Death’s Design
¹There are two hundred and sixty-eight established covers of “Enjoy the Silence” alone. Polish death metal band Vader covered “I Feel You”–yes, the band whose leader produced Decapitated’s Winds of Creation. The Cure has covered “World in My Eyes”, and just to be ridiculous, their own song “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep” was covered by Deftones, who covered Depeche Mode’s “To Have and to Hold” on the same tribute album The Cure’s cover appeared on. Heck, that album also contains the Smashing Pumpkins’ cover of “Never Let Me Down Again” (which later appeared on a soundtrack alongside Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland’s cover of “But Not Tonight”). Tangerine Dream (!) covered “Precious”. Rammstein covered “Stripped” (which was remixed enough times it might be mistaken for an actual Mode track). Jimmy Somerville of Bronski Beat covered “But Not Tonight”. Swedish melodeath co-forefathers (alongside At the Gates and Dark Tranquility) covered “Everything Counts”. Converge (!!) covered “Clean”. Honestly, there’s a whole website databasing these covers.
²I’m not going to claim the mental images I have will–or even could–make sense to other people, but it’s the immediate impression I get.