Monday, July 26, 2010
Morning Commute: Depeche Mode - Some Great Reward
1984's Some Great Reward saw Depeche Mode come of age with an album that, while it represented for the first time more a consolidation than a revolution, is nonetheless a significant step forward in terms of the quality and sophistication of composition, production and performance from Construction Time Again, released almost exactly 12 months prior. It broke the band in the States with inescapable hit single/albatross "People Are People", while in the UK the post synthpop Mode had established its style sufficiently for one Neil Tennant in Smash Hits to review "Blasphemous Rumours" as "a routine slab of gloom..."
It's immediately obvious the band have now mastered their sampler instruction manuals, with sounds being constructed around the songs as opposed to vice versa, and a greater layering and manipulation of sundry metallic noises. The drums in particular are remarkable, a combination of traditional drum machine and found sound, with a power immediately apparent as "Something To Do" kicks things off to thunderous effect. And there's something else new: Martin Gore has apparently discovered fucking, and he's keen to discuss it, and to compare it to other things. The same man wibbling about having "never been in love before" two short years ago would now like you to put your leather boots on. And your pretty dress. He wants to play Master & Servant. And have you "lie with him". All of this would sound, frankly, hilarious coming directly from the wee man himself, but Gahan's slowly developing the charisma and authority to carry it off (if mildly hindered by a truly preposterous feathered mullet), even if it all sounded just a little safe and sanitized next to some of the band's more lurid contemporaries.
Key to the power of the album is a notable darkening of the musical mood to accompany this newfound fascination. "Something To Do" finds an escape from the mundanity of workaday drudgery in sex with an aggressive edge that's not a million miles away from the EBM genre that was beginning to emerge in Europe. "Lie To Me" continues the lyrical theme, rejecting the dishonesty of communication in favor of the physical, all set to a mid-tempo, throbbing bassline and a sinewy, twisting melody, while "Master & Servant" ups the ante, juxtaposing bedroom S&M against everyday exploitation with a thumping, snareless drumbeat and inadvertently hilarious whips'n'moans.
Gore's vocal contributions are their strongest to date with two relatively straightforward love songs, of which one would rightly achieve classic status as a signature song. "Somebody" is still charmingly simple and affecting – Gore's plaintive lyric, sung without undue melodrama against Alan Wilder's piano with a sample of playground noises in the back throwing things just ever so slightly off-kilter. Wilder makes a final songwriting contribution to a Depeche album (he'd continue to occasionally throw in the odd b-side), with "If You Want", which starts in a dirge-like monotone with another indictment of the working week before slamming into a pounding, downbeat barnstormer that worked particularly well in concert, providing Gahan a pulsing backdrop for microphone stand juggling and complicated shouting.
The most complete Depeche Mode performance to date is saved for last. "Blasphemous Rumours" sets Gore's accusation of a malicious God to a song that slips between troubled, whispered verses and a brilliant, spiralling chorus. The production is complex and sympathetic; the pings of a life support machine, the sampled breathing that invokes the sound of a respirator and a brief third-verse counter-melody seemingly based on "Jesus' Love Is Very Wonderful" are all directly inspired by the lyric, while monolithic drumming and clattering samples (of, admittedly, a saucepan coming down the stairs) add to the oppressive atmosphere. It's a classic, if unlikely single (it was perhaps a hedging of bets that found it paired as a double A-side with "Somebody"). The band themselves seem to understand what's been achieved as the usual couple of extended remixes were dispensed with – the 12-inch and album version are essentially the 7-inch mix with no alteration, save for a simple 60 second instrumental coda that continues the breath samples to a repeated sequencer motif.
Nothing much to add from a b-sides and 12 inches standpoint - Alan Wilder's "In Your Memory" from "People Are People" is a solid outing, as is an Adrian Sherwood/On U-Sound remix of the A-side, and it's worth noting that this is where the multi-format years began in earnest, with (very) limited 12-inches for "People Are People" and "Master & Servant", a US-only "Black & Blue Version" remix for the latter, and a limited four-track 7-inch for "Blasphemous Rumours/Somebody".
Arguably the band's first classic then, although listening to it now I'd say Construction Time gives it a solid run for its money, and 1986's Black Celebration finds the band taking the basic style to its greatest success just prior to the imperial phase of the late eighties/early nineties. These days the live setlists tend to stick to the five-new-album-cuts-plus-the-singles plan, but "Something To Do" and "If You Want" have as solid an argument for inclusion as anything else in the catalog (the latter hasn't been played since 1984), and Some Great Reward stands up well as a whole. Obligatory artwork mention - a striking cover photo of a bride and groom set against an industrial landscape rounds out the band's trio of industrial covers, while on the back cover T&CP introduced the first of a number of nearly infinite "DM" logos and assorted iconography that would make repeatedly having to re-decorate your schoolbooks a bit of a slog, to be honest.
Below, "If You Want" from the 1985 video "The World We Live In And Live In Hamburg", criminally unavailable on DVD, and never released in full in the US, where Sire inexplicably cut about 40 percent off the runtime. Bottom, Alan Wilder makes a surprise appearance at this year's Teenage Cancer Trust gig, playing "Somebody", playing with the band for the first time in 16 years, and probably the last.