Let’s start with the inevitable truth: Everything ends eventually. Our lives, the existence of humanity or simply the career of your favourite band. Sometimes we got to be reminded of this existential reality because humans don’t like to get confronted with their mortality. Usually people try to avoid death as good as they can but sometimes a global crisis like the Covid-pandemic and the death of a loved one remind us that our time on this planet is limited. Memento Mori – a reminder that you will die. Sombre synth-pop veterans Depeche Mode truly picked a fitting title for their 15th album which could easily be their final one. You never know for sure with these guys anyway but as they enter their fifth decade it’s most likely to be the last chapter of a career that touched the lives of so many generations all over the world, mine included.
Look, I’m not even trying to hide the fact that I’m slightly biased here. Depeche Mode have been one of the few musical constants on my life, their music carried me through childhood, adolescence and adult life. I love them for their past and I love them for their new releases, I got a reference of Enjoy The Silence tattooed on my leg – I’ve been to a dozen of shows (which means I invested way too much money into these gentlemen). I wouldn’t be where I am today without these guys. But again … everything has to end eventually, even this band. “Death is everywhere. There are flies on the windscreen, for a start” the group once so famously sang in 1986 and yeah, death is pretty present this time, mostly in the form of founding member Andrew “Fletch” Fletcher who passed away last May, shortly before the band was about to enter the studio. That briefly felt like the end although it wasn’t. Yet.
I’ve always known Depeche Mode as a trio. The ten years with Alan Wilder (who left the group in 1995) where before my “active” fan era. There were clear roles. Martin Gore wrote the songs, Dave Gahan was the charismatic frontman and Andy Fletcher was… well… there. Fletch’s musical input was limited. Everybody knew that, it was the content of countless inside jokes throughout the years and I always liked how everybody was fine with that scenario. In a recent interview Gahan described Fletch as the band’s biggest fan as well as the balancing force between him and Gore. Lord knows the two had their issues over the past four decades but they made their peace during the past twenty years and I’d like to believe that Andy Fletcher played a certain part in there. If you lose somebody you sometimes don’t know what you were actually missing until the very moment this person is gone. It’s slightly ironic that the whole premise of Memento Mori feels like one big tribute to the gone band member – and it’s simply not true. According to the remaining two all of the songs were written and demoed before Andy left this earth and they already decided on the title back then. The fragility of human existence was put to a global test when Covid hit the planet in early 2020 and that also shaped the songs Gore and Gahan were writing back then.
Life itself is precious and while Depeche Mode got that long lasting tendency to be fascinated by death this album did indeed also become a tribute to the pleasure of being alive… but don’t worry, there’s still a decent portion of death and gloom lurking around on the record.
Fuelling The Machine
Like on the pretty good 2017 predecessor Spirit James Ford once again produced the album (the band got a tendency to stick with these folks), while engineer and sound virtuoso Marta Salogni brought some fresh ideas to the table. In the cosiness of Martin Gore’s home studio the little team worked together on the record last summer, just a few weeks after Andy’s death. Obviously, for them it also worked as a much needed routine to deal with the loss but there’s also a less romantic reason: Everything was already scheduled by then – the recordings, the album, a global tour throughout 2023 and probably also 2024. Over the past forty years Depeche Mode have become a big machine that needs to run on a regular basis to feed all the people that are involved. Getting that machine going has become a bit harder. The tour for Spirit was long and exhausting and their final shows in Berlin back in July 2018 did feel a bit like the end. I was privileged to attend Fletch’s last show back then and that warm summer night could have been a fitting full stop, I got to say. In the aftermath especially Gahan wasn’t convinced to restart the engines. With the dirty blues rock of Soulsavers he found a spiritual home that feels closer to his artistic vision and Martin prefers to be the studio wizard anyway and released a few solid electronic records over the past years while he finds songwriting more and more difficult, it appears. This time, his old friend Richard Butler from The Psychedelic Furs helped writing a few of those Memento Mori songs which also shaped an album that feels still relative fresh due to its reduced appeal while also delivering lots of the “Greatest Hits” you’d expect on a Depeche Mode album, but in a still very rewarding form.
While the album opening track My Cosmos Is Mine unfolds its gloomy beauty in the form of lots of modulated electronic sounds and a dark Gahan vocal performance we haven’t heard in a while (reminding me of the band’s early 1990s phase), the comeback single Ghosts Again shows that famous HappySad-vibe you might remember from previous hits like Enjoy The Silence and Precious. There are countless of those self-referential déjà-vu’s you will find throughout Memento Mori. The slow grooving Wagging Tongue rides on an arpeggio synth that could have also worked on 1983’s Construction Time Again. Gloomy yet grooving songs like People Are Good and Before We Drown recall the band’s more industrial phase from around Some Great Reward and Black Celebration. But there’s also a surprising guitar rocking tune like Never Let Me Go which could have also worked on 1997’s Ultra album next to a song like Useless. Maybe these are just lucky coincidences, maybe it was a back-to-the-roots approach or the influence of the albums producers. As 50 percent of Simian Mobile Disco James Ford delivered plenty of precise techno and electronica productions over the past 15 years and Marta Salogni who previously worked with Björk, Holly Herndon and Bon Iver also knows how to make the most of electronic sounds while keeping enough space for the music to create its flow. Memento Mori is technically not a minimalist album but it’s less packed as Spirit and that’s a great turn. And I haven’t heard such a sweet string arrangement on a Depeche Mode tune like Don’t Say You Love Me in quite a while.
Expecting And Embracing The Inevitable
I know, it’s tempting to overanalyze this but in many parts you could interpret this as one final showcase of all these strengths before the final curtain call. Look at us! This is who we are and what we did. And we can still give it to you 43 years later. Yeah, Memento Mori could be a perfect parting gift, also due to the nature of these songs that address life’s pressure transience throughout the record. The fact that it’s an even darker experience than their last albums fits quite well with their legacy as well. “I’m ready for the final pages / kiss goodbye to all my earthly cages. I’m climbing up the golden stairs,” sings Martin Gore in the bittersweet Soul With Me, his only leading vocal track this time. Love remains the only beam of light in this grim world. “My love, the world’s upside down / My love, no solid ground,” sings Gahan in Always You only to address his loved one in the chorus as only saviour from all the despair. The world isn’t a nice place, some people might be good but it’s not the overall rule. Well, so far everything remains grim in the Depeche cosmos.
Like mentioned before, the life-changing experience of the global pandemic played a crucial part here and so did the fact that the remaining Depeche Mode members turned 60 during that time. It really makes you evaluate the time you have left on this planet and I’m sure Gahan and Gore did exactly that. Fletch’s passing might have deepened those thoughts over the past months. Gahan might have guessed that before. He can’t be the ageless master of ceremony forever and had to get various fitness coaches in order to get ready for this massive run of tourdates throughout the arenas and stadiums of the world.
Gahan and Gore don’t owe their fans anything; that much is for sure. They were never the band to plan ahead, they always approached things one album a time, usually every 3 to 4 years. But these routines don’t work anymore. Maybe Memento Mori wouldn’t have happened if Andy died before the songwriting and scheduling process. Maybe it’s the one thing they need to finish here as a tribute to their biggest fan and lifelong friend. Maybe that’s really it. And as much as I’m still as hyped about new music from the band as I was twenty years ago … and as much as this album is a pretty strong one I can’t help but feeling the word “closure” popping up in my head after listening to it. Maybe it’s also the circumstances, the title, Fletch’s death and the self-referential nature of the record but it does indeed feel like everything’s been said now. Despite having their creative peak 30 years ago Depeche Mode still delivered pretty outstanding pieces of music throughout the years. Even on Memento Mori you can still find some of their strongest work and I don’t know many artists who deliver that after such a long time. Despite having quite a legacy and dedicated following, Depeche Mode were never a “legacy act” to me. They always had something new to tell me and their newer songs also resonated a lot with me. To me, I have as many memories with 2009’s Sounds Of The Universe as I have with, let’s say the iconic Violator from 1990. It’s still fun and I can’t wait for the summer tour – still, everything has to end eventually.
Larger Than Death
Picking the right moment to say farewell as an artist is tough and many have failed triumphantly (like the The Rolling Stones), others returned after their final concerts, R.E.M. did a good job when they gracefully quit in the early 2010s and David Bowie’s fatal cancer diagnosis let him decide his own fate with his final releases. Most of these artists continue with a certain “you never know when it’s the last time”-attitude and surely Depeche Mode have been part of that category for a few years now. Is there life beyond Memento Mori? Maybe Gahan and Gore already know the answer to that. There certainly is still enough musical life in their creative bones to write great songs together. And I would love for them to record music without the pressure of the big touring machine. Maybe this might actually happening after that because according to recent interviews Fletch’s passing lead to a deeper and more personal relationship between these two and that could also trigger something creative. So, one final outburst of creativity, freed from the touring machine and commercial expecations would be an even nicer farewell than this one. I could see that happen later this decade. Well, or maybe not. It wouldn’t be as much fun as it is when it would last forever. Thanks to an unplanned viral TikTok hype with Enjoy The Silence and the clever placement of Never Let Me Down Again in the popular HBO series The Last Of Us a whole new generation of people are currently discovering Depeche Mode for the first time and I like the fact that there’s a 15-year old kid right now somewhere that listens to Black Celebration and the rest of the discography for the very first time.
To me Depeche Mode are music history’s biggest alternative group, maybe even bigger than The Cure. They always attracted the misfits back then and still do. Obviously, by commercial aspects they are a mainstream band but from an artistic point of view they never were. Too electronic for being a rock band, too twisted for being a pop act, too mellow for being a dance act – Depeche Mode created their own niche, they are the godfathers of dark wave, a timeless entity and musical home for those who seek for personal and spiritual revelation in the obscure darker sides of life instead of the light. Memento Mori delivers some of the bleakest material I’ve ever heard from this band, even by their standards. But there’s a cathartic feeling that comes with this listening experience. And in the end there’s an undeniable element of hope and gratitude that comes with that. Speak To Me is the perfect track to end the album, I have to say. On a slow tumbling electronic beat Gahan asks a higher force (or maybe Gore?) for redemption while the music around him slowly drifts into chaos. “I’m listening, I’m here now, I’m found,” are his final words sung on the album before the chaos turns into sudden silence. And then it ends and it is okay because the music will reverberate. Even after this band is gone. And that is a very soothing thought.
Memento Mori is out now via Sony/BMG.