Thursday, July 29, 2010

Morning Commute: Depeche Mode - Black Celebration

Depeche Mode took 1985 off, filling the gap with a compilation rounding up their singles to date that included two new songs, the strong "Shake The Disease" and the alarmingly inessential "It's Called A Heart".  The following year they'd return with simultaneously the apotheosis and the abandonment of their industrial period, Black Celebration.

Lyrically their darkest work to date (indeed, in some danger of self-parody on "Fly On The Windscreen"), it also marks the point where the post synthpop Depeche came of age; the album is again a step forward in maturity and compositional sophistication from Some Great Reward, simultaneously more complex and layered yet with more space in the music than before. It's immediately apparent on the title track that kicks off the album, which fades in as menacingly as "Blasphemous Rumours" faded out some 18 months prior, a John Carpenter/Halloween-esque synthesizer sequence blending with ominous, unintelligible vocal samples (including, famously, Mute boss and DM producer Daniel Miller's Winston Churchill impression). Dave Gahan enters, heavily reverbed, harder-edged and rawer than before. The song takes its time to build and unwind, but when it comes in full force it's with an authority beyond anything the band had released previously, even if the lyric is essentially a rewrite of "Something To Do". Five minutes later it fades out as it began, into the sampled breathing and heavy percussion of "Fly On The Windscreen - Final", which, as the name implies, is making its ultimate appearance here after initially cropping up as the b-side to "It's Called A Heart", before the mood lightens and slows a little with Martin Gore taking lead vocals on the gorgeous "A Question Of Lust", a full production layering strings and bell-like synths under his strongest singing to date. These first three songs blend seamlessly into one another, a technique better integrated here than on Construction Time, and furthering the impression of a unified, cohesive work rather than merely a collection of songs, a concept album in tone and mood if not explicitly in subject matter.

If there's a flaw to the proceedings it crops up early and it's an arguable one: there's too much Gore here. Four lead vocals, three in a similar glacial tempo and another song ("Black Dress") that sounds like he'd written it for himself rather than Dave is rather too many. Gore's voice isn't without its charms but I've always thought of him as I used to Noel Gallagher; you don't mind him wandering out with the acoustic for a couple of numbers while you pop out for a piss, but he's ultimately pulling attention from the main attraction. "Sometimes" is a pretty piano ballad, a "Somebody" redux under heavy delay effects, but sticking it and "It Doesn't Matter Two" back-to-back on side one drops a little momentum from the proceedings, although "A Question Of Time" restores it with a vengeance.

Indeed, It's essentially an album of two halves, divided equally and starkly between heavy, aggressive mid-tempo epics versus softer ballads. In the former category, the aforementioned title track stands up as an classic along with "Fly" and the pounding, brutal "A Question Of Time". Straddling the difference is the criminally under-appreciated "Here Is The House", showcasing a warm, understated Gahan vocal set to the metronome of a ticking clock and a winning arpeggiated lead melody, while "Stripped" is perhaps the enduring classic and the emotional center of the record. The lead-off single from the album, it's a cinematic production, opening with a rhythmic, treated sample of a motorcycle engine and a single held low note that's soon joined by layered metallic synths and Gahan's plea for human connection over industry and technology. Gore joins in the harmonies and backing vocals, an approach frequently employed but rarely better than here, and the terrific middle eight opens things up into widescreen. Inexplicably ignored in the band's most recent "Best of" compilation, which is absolutely unforgivable, it remains one of the band's finest moments.  A retreat in intensity follows, with Gore returning for "World Full Of Nothing", whose pretty melody belies the song's nihilism, while "Dressed In Black" is probably the weakest track on the album, with a lyric that veers dangerously close to cliche and a subject which Gore would revisit more personally and successfully on Violator's "Blue Dress". "New Dress" closes out proceedings with a rare and final return to social commentary, a heavily processed Gahan buried in the mix, quoting newspaper headlines over distorted drums and clattering percussion, and, after the darkness of the rest of the album, a song that makes an effort to acknowledge at least the possibility of change.

The remixes and 12-inch extra tracks came thick and fast - by the third single – a heavily remixed "A Question Of Time" – live tracks from the Black Celebration Tour were beginning to show up. Only two new b-sides (outside of a couple of radical deconstructions of existing tracks) would appear in this period, the dark instrumental "Christmas Island", and "But Not Tonight", which would flip places with "Stripped" as the A-side of the US version of this single owing to its inclusion on the soundtrack of lost 80s shitfest "Modern Girls". The band (or at least Wilder, if memory serves) apparently disliked the latter track, tossed off in a single day, intensely, rejecting it as too pop, but I've always had a very soft spot for it, particularly in extended form, and thematically it's consistent with the album even if the production is a little simpler and the mood a touch lighter. On the remixes side, Flood's "Highland Mix" of "Stripped" is an absolute monster, giving the song room to breathe in an expansion that formed the basis of the live version for years to come.

The cover art was the strongest T&CP effort to date, a matte none-more-black affair with embossed icons running down the outer columns and a spot-glossed photo (Brian Griffin's last for the band) featuring flowers set against an ominous glass tower block. Simple typography and a new DM icon is set simply across a red and yellow bar at the top. A caption on the back reads, despairingly, "Life in the so-called space age". It's bleak and beautiful, a post-modern gothic affair that perfectly captures the mood, as dark as Depeche Mode would ever get, yet lightened with moments of beauty.

Mood music in its truest form, there are probably fewer tracks on Black Celebration beyond the title track and singles that I'd think of playing alone versus its predecessors, and some songs that, taken exclusively on their own merits seem somewhat slight, but like The Cure's Disintegration it works brilliantly as a single cohesive piece, and stands among Depeche Mode's finest hours close to a quarter-century (Christ, old, etc) on. They'd be better than this. But only twice.

Below, "Black Celebration" live on The Tube in 1986, and "New Dress" and "Stripped" live in concert on the Black Celebration Tour. Pardon the 80s graphics on the latter, although it's got bugger all to do with me.

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