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.
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.
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.