Friday, July 16, 2010

Morning Commute: Depeche Mode - Speak & Spell

The first Depeche Mode album remains a curious artifact in many ways - the band would move swiftly on from the classic synthpop sound and most of these songs would see their final appearances live within a couple of years, while the record itself mixes the incredibly twee, some brilliantly daft lyrics and three or four classics together with a few pointers to the future sounds of both the band and Vince Clarke.

Taking on its musical merits alone it stands up well, if clearly of its time. The two singles are essential – "New Life" bounces along infectiously if incomprehensibly ("I stand still stepping on the shady street and I watch that man to a stranger") while "Just Can't Get Enough" is still the archetypal synthpop moment at 29 years old. "Photographic" is the only song here that still makes the occasional live performance, albeit in a more aggressive version that's closer to the one featured on the Some Bizzare Album compilation that preceded the band's signing to Mute. "Puppets" pairs a terrific synth hook with a darker sound that points the way toward the following year's A Broken Frame, and "Nodisco" could almost be the first Erasure single some four years ahead of the birth of the band itself.

On the weaker side, "Big Muff" may be the world's least essential instrumental, I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead belies its Kurt Cobain title with a main synth riff that makes "The Meaning Of Love" sound like Slayer's "Reign In Blood", and "What's Your Name" pairs call-and-response vocals in very poor cod Beach Boys American accents with a lyric that Scissor Sisters would reject as excessively fey. Of a piece with "Boys Say Go!" (see below), I think it's unlikely to show up on a setlist at this point, although it would have been fucking hysterical to see it tackled in '94-'95 during Dave Gahan's full-on smacked-up rock god phase. [UPDATE: Incredibly, they were still performing it as late as 1986 on the Black Celebration tour...]

The 1988 Mute CD reissue adds five tracks (inexplicably relegated to the DVD on the more recent deluxe edition) including two of the strongest of the period. "Shout", originally the b-side of "New Life", is all buried vocals and clanging percussion, a primitive precursor of the sampled industrial clatter that the band would embrace three years later, while "Dreaming of Me" b-side "Ice Machine" is retrospectively a minimal electro classic, four minutes of swirling synth pads, metronomic percussion and utterly incomprehensible lyrics that wouldn't be out of place on Wierd's recent Cold Waves & Minimal Electronics collection.

Below, a live take from 1981 on "Boys Say Go!", which manages to pack more homoeroticism into three short minutes than Erasure have thus far managed over an entire 25 year career.

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