Monday, August 16, 2010

Morning Commute: Depeche Mode - Music For The Masses

The imperial phase begins.

1987's Music For The Masses saw a significant break from the past in the form of an outside producer stepping in for the first time; David Bascombe replaced Mute head Daniel Miller, who had produced all of the band's previous albums. Whether it's this change or simply the band's skill in the studio continuing to increase, there's a scale to the sound here that dwarfs all that came before it, never more so than on opening track "Never Let Me Down Again" which is simply fucking massive, a distorted electric guitar riff cut short by the slam of a drum and into a slice of thumping  industrial dance that was the minor single from the album in terms of chart success but would go on to be a staple encore to the present day. It's a deserved legacy for an all-time classic, a lyric that may or may not be about drug abuse paired to a driving rhythm and a terrific Gahan/Gore chorus. Live, where it's given room to breathe in a version based on the 12-inch Split Mix, it's a stormer. If not the strongest Depeche song ever, it's top three for me.

Elsewhere, the mood is somewhat lighter than Black Celebration and even Some Great Reward - if the band are still trading lyrically in the seamier side of life then some of it is balanced somewhat by a danceable, more upbeat approach, particularly in lead-off single "Strangelove", more successfully dealt with here in an album-specific version than on the preceding 7-inch - the major changes are an extended coda and more fundamentally the elimination of the first chorus in favor of going straight into the verse,  a simple edit which seems to give the song more weight than the overly poppy single version. In a similar vein, "Sacred" is infectious uptempo pop, marred slightly by a cringe-inducing lyric that puts Gahan in the unenviable position of suggesting he's a bit like a missionary, but instead of bringing religion to the unenlightened, he's bringing his willy. "Nothing" is the band in uncharacteristically groovy mood, with a funk guitar riff over a dance beat that belies the nihilism of the lyric.

It's not all sunshine, and the darker songs on Masses see the band at their most musically experimental, particularly on "I Want You Now", built entirely around heavily treated non-verbal vocal samples alongside a Gore-sung lyric that's about as fundamental and direct as Martin would ever take his favorite topic. "To Have & To Hold" is brief but brilliant, kicking off with an ominous spoken Russian sample before a single nearly monotone verse of Gahan at his darkest and most scabrous, pleading for "forgiveness/someone to bear witness", to take away "all this decay". It's filthy and foreboding, and easy to consider in retrospect as a foreshadowing of Gahan's imminent plummet into several years of junkie hell.

Third single "Behind The Wheel" is perhaps the song on Masses that could have sat most comfortably on Black Celebration, industrial percussion and a thumping beat coupled with a brilliant simple pulsing bassline  while "Little 15" is "A Question Of Time" on the morning after, with Gahan backed by a repeated minor-key organ figure as he seemingly addresses an associate of the subject of the earlier song. I hope it's the same person anyway; otherwise there's an awful lot of 15-year-olds running around this part of the discography.

Violator is almost universally regarded as Depeche Mode's best album, and it's arguably a more technically accomplished and stylistically cohesive work, but Music For The Masses' combination of club hits and quirky experimentation, its mix of light and dark, its deeply strange promotional videos and suddenly, surreally massive world tours and stadium gigs (rarely has a title, presumably coined ironically, been so apropos) just wins it for me as a personal favorite. It's the dividing line between Club Mode and Stadium Mode, the last album unfettered by the weight of world domination (although Songs Of Faith & Devotion also found the band confounding expectations, if under radically different circumstances). If there are flaws, they're relatively minor – the sequencing front-loads the album somewhat, and bunging the concert intro music "Pimpf" on as the final number feels a bit cheap, particularly since the track had already shown up as the b-side of "Strangelove", but these are relatively minor nits; Music For The Masses stands up today as a classic release, a triumphant consolidation of the strengths of the previous albums.

On the singles front, the remixes came thick and fast - "Strangelove" alone got half a dozen on initial maneuvers as well as another couple on staggeringly pointless US-only release "Strangelove '88" the following year. "Never Let Me Down Again" is at its best in the Split Mix, which essentially drops an edit of the heavy industrial deconstruction of the Aggro Mix on the end of the single version to the benefit of both. "Behind The Wheel" dropped its pulsing bassline in a butchered Shep Pettibone 7-inch mix but found its métier in the various 12-inch versions, of which the strongest are the sample-laden Beatmasters Mix and the US exclusive Megamix that segued the song in and out of b-side (and first DM cover) "Route 66". That b-side showed up in two 12-inch mixes of its own, both excellent, both incorporating elements of "Behind The Wheel" and both completely different sonically - the American TV sampling rock'n'roll  of the Beatmasters Mix and the heavy electronics and distortion of the Casualty Mix. Most of these mixes, with the notable exception of the various US Behind The Wheel/Route 66 medleys, would show up in the Singles Box compilations, but if there's a single classic from an artifact point of view it's the Limited 12-inch [L12BONG15] "Behind The Wheel" (Beatmasters Mix)/Route 66 (Casualty Mix), memorably released on yellow vinyl by the Germans, who were heavily into that sort of thing at the time. Brilliantly, the typography on the cover features an umlaut over the "T" in "The". Try pronouncing that.

Cover art – last of the T&CP efforts before Anton and his Magic Crayolas took over, and it's a good one, though the parts are probably slightly stronger than the whole, from the DM logo that launched a thousand shirts to the iconic orange loudspeakers that also appeared, in photographic or iconographic form, across the single formats.

It's worth a brief mention of the companion pieces to Masses, the concert film and double album 101. The live album is arguably the more successful of the two, a strong run through a 90 minute set leaning heavily on Music For The Masses and Black Celebration, while D.A. Pennebaker's documentary is somewhat marred by the melding of concert film with documentary footage featuring half a dozen of the more annoying fans you'll ever see and some fairly unenlightening backstage footage, although it's worth it for the synth geeks to get 90 seconds of "Black Celebration" tutorial from Alan Wilder, and for everyone else for the haircuts. A videotape compilation of the atmospheric Anton Corbijn promo clips for the singles (plus "A Question Of Time" and "Pimpf"), Strange, was also released around this time; it's currently out of print, rendered semi-redundant by later collections (although the versions of "Behind The Wheel" and "Never Let Me Down Again" on Strange are longer than those currently available, and "Pimpf" hasn't shown up since).

Below, "Never Let Me Down" from 101. Skip past the backstage twattery for arguably the iconic performance of this song; the moment where the crew hits the lights at 4:05 for wavy hands time is still stunning; the emotion on Gahan's face is palpable. Below that, "Strangelove" three years later on the World Violation Tour.

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