Saturday, July 24, 2010

Morning Commute: Depeche Mode - Construction Time Again

The great leap forward. 1983 saw Depeche Mode start the year with non-album single "Get The Balance Right!", a song that essentially consolidated the stronger elements of the Broken Frame sound. Seven months later, they'd release an album that bore almost no resemblance to it.

Construction Time Again saw the band overhauling their sound, replacing the traditional warm analog synthpop with a sampler-based approach that owes a well-documented debt to the industrial sound German power tool botherers  Einstürzende Neubauten had pioneered, although the full evolution of that aesthetic would only appear on 1984's Some Great Reward. Here it's still emerging, the band halfway through the "Welcome to Synclavier" manual and still clearly figuring out how to exploit found sound and the power of the sampler. The result is amusingly twee in places - there's a repeated sound in "Pipeline" that's clearly someone dropping a ping-pong ball for example, and several songs lean a little heavily on a synthesized brass section that would inform the band's sound across the mid 80s (get yourself a couple of sheets of corrugated iron, a hammer, the ping-pong ball and a trumpet, you're halfway to the tribute band), but the overall sound is nonetheless significantly beefed up from A Broken Frame, not least the drums, which have a power and authority here missing from prior work. Some of this sonic improvement is probably due to the promotion of Alan Wilder from tour keyboardist to full band member; certainly Wilder's studio contributions would go on to be recognized as critical to DM's sound.

Lyrically too there's a significant step forward from Martin Gore (and Wilder, who contributed two tracks and a b-side to the period). The same band who a year earlier were questioning the definition of love in the naffest music video ever filmed now brusquely dismiss the concept in the first three minutes of the album as "Not enough/In Itself", and, suitably cowed, Love fucks off out of it for the remaining eight songs. The rest of the album finds the band at its most political, with lyrics covering such weighty subjects as environmentalism, capitalist greed and nuclear war, albeit in a fashion that wasn't likely to give Gang of Four or Crass any sleepless nights.

It's a consistently strong effort with very few dips in quality and a sound that's more aggressive than you remember. Opener "Love, In Itself" is one of the band's more forgettable singles, but it fades immediately into "More Than A Party" which immediately establishes this new bolder terrain. Gahan's voice, while yet to achieve the stentorian timbre it would in later years, is far more confident than before, matched by the assault of a heavier beat and more complex layers of instrumentation. "Pipeline" sees Gore take lead vocal on the most overtly industrial song on the album (and a bit of a dirge, let's be honest), and then it's the peerless "Everything Counts", a song that was still being employed as an encore nearly 25 years later on the Playing The Angel tour. It's still a very odd hit single, this mix of industrial samples, melodia, xylophone and shawm backing a lyric about corporate greed and music business exploitation. Even the single cover art showed a determined break with the past, with a rough crayon sketch of a worker with a hammer (a theme reprised on T&CP's terrific  album art), while a switch of music video directors suggested the band would no longer be appearing with small children and teddy bears, thank Christ.

On the second side, the frantic "Told You So" is the most obvious signpost to the more complete synthesis of the pop-Neubauten sound of the following year's Some Great Reward, while two rare Wilder compositions qualify as minor classics. The nuclear themed "Two Minute Warning" could easily have been a third single, with a bridge lyric "No sex/No consequence/No sympathy" that showcases the sterner face of the new Mode, while "The Landscape Is Changing" pairs an ahead-of-its-time if completely naïve treatise on pollution to a terrific minor key melody and a great vocal from Gahan. Wilder's "official" (everything from this point on really should be credited Gore/Wilder given the man's programming and arrangement contributions) songwriting contributions would peak here; he'd offer "If You Want" and a couple of b-sides the following year and that'd be it; a shame, given the obvious talent. His "Love, In Itself" b-side "Fools", one of my favorite songs of the Construction Time era, is also worth tracking down in both long and short versions; it would have fit very well on the album proper.

The first Depeche Mode album with quality from start to finish, and the definition of a transitional  album; next year's Some Great Reward is arguably the band's first classic, and the birth of the modern Mode sound.

Below, "More Than A Party" live in Birmingham in '83. Much of the concert appears to be up on YouTube, albeit in this quality. As the sound takes a leap forward, so to is Gahan's stage persona;  the polite plaid-clad bopping chappy of years past is suddenly making with the bum wiggle and the "OHHHAYAYAYOEEEAEAHAHHH"s. Below that, "Everything Counts" live in 2006.

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