Opinion: Depeche Mode Are Stuck In A '90s Rut

Disclaimer: In no way do I wish this to be a hate post, it’s just a re-evaluation of some of the core beliefs of many on the subject of Depeche Mode. In my opinion, Depeche Mode’s best album is 1988’s Music for the Masses. It presents itself as the best culmination of their repeated attempts to marry provocative lyrics with their stadium-sized ambition and hunger for popularity. It has been nearly matched twice, with 1986’s Black Celebration and 2005’s Playing the Angel. All three of these releases show Depeche Mode at their best, perfecting their formula to create albums that stand out among their 14-album discography.

I’ve always had a problem with Depeche Mode despite these solid releases. For me, they have made exactly the same album ever since 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion (SOFAD) an album that cemented the problems I already had with their previous releases – that Depeche Mode had created a musical and lyrical template for themselves, beginning with Black Celebration, that they did not stray from. The template I speak of is of course creating an album with songs that are about… well… songs regarding faith and devotion.

Martin Gore’s lyrical career was kick-started upon Vince Clarke’s departure from the band, however, it was soon reinforced by 1983’s ‘Some Great Reward’ where Gore’s lyrics were performed with suitable aplomb by lead singer Dave Gahan. However, certain themes began to become apparent in their music and by 1993 his lyrics had slipped into self-parody, so much so as to name an entire album after his oft-explored lyrical topics of Faith (or rather, lack of religious faith) and Devotion.

The problem? Every single one of Depeche Mode’s albums could be given the same title. They found their core demographic and slipped into a comatose state of simply churning out the same album to appease the fans, taking very little risk to add variety. Granted, the aesthetic changed somewhat through each album: the rougher edges of Ultra; the low-fi glitches of Exciter which is perhaps the most ironic album title in history, with it being anything but exciting; and the industrial stomp of Delta Machine. Yet these small changes are merely to cover up the incessant re-treading of the same lyrical themes and synth palettes that have graced every album since the corruptive SOFAD.

Depeche Mode’s discography can be looked back upon as one of repetition and occasional perfection of the same tried and tested formula.
– Kieran Baddeley

This is not to say that Gahan can be blameless. Ever since Gahan’s voice broke, he has churned out the same baritone performances on each song, straying very little from this deep warble across their career and changing only to a slightly more gravelly texture from Ultra onwards. Unlike other frontmen of the era, Gahan was so affected with his image to the world as a bad-boy that he would do all in his power to maintain this exterior, sacrificing variety in the process. Bernard Sumner famously laughed halfway through New Order’s 1986 song ‘Every Little Counts’, when he failed to reach a high note. New Order kept this in the final album version of the song. I imagine this would be too damaging a dent in Gahan’s image if it were ever to happen to him. He continues to exude an attempted taboo-influenced aesthetic, wearing leather waistcoats that struggle to stay on during performances even on their most recent ‘Spirit Tour.’  It’s embarrassing and if I were Iggy Pop I would sue for plagiarism.

It is a running joke amongst fans that Fletch (yes, Depeche Mode has a third member) does nothing in the band apart from stand at the back looking vaguely interested in whatever piece of equipment is in front of him. I honestly would not be surprised if his sunglasses were opaque. More seriously however, it would not matter if Depeche Mode consisted of three Fletch’s. After all, they are still making the same album as they did in 1993. Gahan sings with such monotony that an album’s worth of listening would put a baby to sleep. Gore remains the more interesting singer yet his lines are so underutilised and so far back in the final mix of their tracks that it matters not one bit whether he’s good or not.

Back in the sterilised 80s, I have no doubt that Depeche Mode’s often kinky music and lyrics (Master and Servant/ Stripped, we’re looking at you) would prove stimulating to teenagers that found themselves caught in a suburban rut. After the hedonism of the 90s and the rate of decreasing censorship ever since the 2000’s however, Depeche Mode’s discography can be looked back upon as one of repetition and occasional perfection of the same tried and tested formula.

Remarkably, the past two years have seen Depeche Mode outsell artists like Justin Bieber and Beyoncé to become the most popular live act in the world. Perhaps the band aren’t to blame, such a loyal fan base would be intimidating to disappoint I imagine.