Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Morning Commute: Depeche Mode - A Broken Frame

1982 saw Depeche Mode release their sophomore album without the aid of primary songwriter Vince Clarke, who fucked off out of it claiming his lack of comfort with success, then immediately formed the highly successful Yazoo followed by the profoundly successful Erasure. DM responded by giving the pen to Martin Gore, roping in Alan Wilder on keyboards, saying yes to some of the most embarrassing publicity shoots ever committed to film, and releasing arguably their weakest album, although in fairness a) it's got its highlights and b) I'm tempted to look on it more favorably these days than the MOR snoozefest that was much of 2007's Exciter if for no other reason than the inexperience of all involved and the challenges with the lineup change.

A Broken Frame starts strongly. "Leave In Silence", released as the third and final single from the album, is perhaps the key transitional point from new romantic synthpop to darker fare, with a lyric that details the "emotional violence" of a dying relationship to the sound of a throbbing bassline and samples of breaking glass. The 12-inch "(Longer)" is the strongest version, bringing in the beats earlier with a lengthy intro and extending the coda with the sequencer set to glitch.

Further highlights include first single "See You", the chart success of which must have greatly reassured a band whose final communication with the departing Clarke was apparently to tell him to stick his proffered "Only You" directly up his arse. Slowing the tempo, it's a pretty ballad with Beach Boys harmonies, and it holds up well today, unlike middle single "The Meaning Of Love", which is, let's be honest here, fucking terrible lyrically and horribly twee melodically, although the whole thing's worth it for the 12-inch "Fairly Odd Mix", which sees someone actually ask mid-song "What do you want to do then?" The answer, apparently, is start fucking about with controls on the mixing desk seemingly at random, which is still a better approach that the efforts of most of the band's 90s guest remixers.

The album overall is a mildly schizophrenic affair, with the lightweight pop of "The Meaning Of Love" and "A Photograph Of You" sitting next to a series of self-conscious efforts to add depth and meaning. Much of the rest of this latter strategy, unfortunately, combines hapless sixth-form lyrical stylings with a collection of music that would have been stronger for the presence of anything resembling a melody. (The lyrics aren't helped by the memory of the lyrics on the inner sleeve being embellished with inexplicable exclamation marks. There's something about the punctuation that doesn't help a lyric that's already handicapped by going "My Secret Garden's Not! So Secret! Anymore!"). Chief offenders here are "Monument", "Shouldn't Have Done That!" and "Satellite", all of which are trying nobly for a depth conspicuously absent in "Boys Say Go!", but with very limited success. The music, meanwhile, strongly suggests that all the good synth presets had already been used and the group were struggling with the second bank of shitty FX and ersatz woodwinds. There's a sense that Gore, rapidly pressed into service as songwriter and lyricist, was probably exhausting his limited repertoire, a theory reinforced by the fact that two of the three single b-sides are instrumentals (and one of those simply a faster discofied version of "My Secret Garden").

The more somber approach isn't without its successes however - the aforementioned "Leave In Silence" for one, and it throws up one genuine lost classic. Closer "The Sun & The Rainfall" could easily have held its own on any of Depeche's 80s albums, and is surely the only song on the album beyond "Leave In Silence" that could feasibly be performed live today (Alan Wilder apparently tried to include it in the set-list on one of the Faith & Devotion tours but was voted down). It's a terrific song, a mid-tempo piece with thumping drums that point the way forward to Construction Time, and a great chorus that drops slowly out into an extended fade of layered vocals and counter melodies.

The album as a whole has dated significantly, but it's still a fascinating document of a band struggling to reinvent itself when all and sundry had written it off, and clues to the band's eventual style are clearly evident in retrospect. The group themselves rapidly accepted the album as transitional – by the time of the '84 world tour "See You" and "Leave In Silence" would be the sole representatives in the setlist. Finally, it's worth pointing out the classic cover design from Town & Country Planning, responsible for the band's visual identity until the Anton Corbijn Institute of Fingerpainting took over in the early 90s. Depeche would revisit this classic industrialist/worker imagery a year later, when the lyrical content caught up to the theme.

Below, horrible quality I know, but the only live version of "The Sun & The Rainfall" I've been able to track down, live at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1982. Most of this gig (or the same venue on the same tour) ended up as extra tracks on what were originally German import 12-inch single "Mini Albums" for "Get The Balance Right", "Everything Counts" and "Love, In Itself" in 1983. Below that, an amazingly high quality contemporary clip of "See You" on The Tube - one for the synth porn crew with a PPG Wave 2 and Jupiter 8 in the spotlight, as well as what appears to be a 12-year-old Dave Gahan with a classic case of negative sideburns.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, this is correct also. Although I have a soft spot for My Secret Garden. It meant a lot more at the age of 10 than it does at the age of 30. Something.