Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Depeche Mode Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Speak & Spell (1981, Sire)

B +   

The band’s delightful debut album is also a huge anomaly in their catalog – there’s nothing remotely dark or gothic or industrial about it, and, in fact, it’s much more representative of the kind of fun, effervescent electronic pop Erasure would later make than the kind of music Depeche Mode would go on to make. There’s a reason for that, though: the group’s primary songwriter and creative leader at this point was co-founder Vince Clarke, who’d leave the group before the next album in order to form the synth-pop duo Yaz (“Situation,” “Only You,” “Don’t Go”) and, later, Erasure. It’s not a perfect album – there’s some obvious filler (“Boys Say Go!” and “Nodisco,” namely) and there’s also a disconnect between Clarke’s compositions and the two here contributed by Martin Gore that keeps the album from seeming completely cohesive – but it’s great fun to listen to, and Clarke offers up a fine batch of songs here. “Puppets,” “What’s Your Name?,” and “Any Second Now (Voices)” are all quite good, but even those are bested by the pop brilliance of the album’s singles, “New Life,” “Dreaming of Me,” and most memorably of all, the enduring synth-pop-singalong classic “Just Can’t Get Enough.”

A Broken Frame (1982, Sire)

C +   

With Vince Clarke having left the group, Martin Gore takes over as the band’s primary songwriter, but he’s yet to fully hone his compositional chops, and this transitional disc suffers from a weird dynamic: either Gore’s trying to replicate Vince Clarke’s style or he’s immersing himself into wildly experimental territory (such as that of “Shouldn’t Have Done That” or “Monument”), and the juxtaposition of such diverse styles makes for one of the band’s least cohesive albums. The disc fares best when they try to stick to the mold of early hits like “New Life” and “Dreaming of Me,” as they do on the delightful singles “See You” and “The Meaning of Life” and the bouncy album cut “A Photograph of You.” But there are hints of the Depeche Mode sound of later years in cuts like the opener “Leave in Silence.” It’s a very hit-and-miss disc, but that’s probably only to be expected of a transitional album, and the group would continue to improve with each subsequent album.

Construction Time Again (1983, Sire)

B –

A much more confident and cohesive disc than A Broken Frame, the band has finally shed any remaining vestiges of its Vince Clarke-era self and has crafted a new sound entirely its own. Gore has still yet to fully blossom as a songwriter and some of the tracks (like “Pipeline,” for instance) are just a little too more reliant on studio experimentation than melody to really qualify as great pieces of writing, but he’s also noticeably improved quite a bit since the last disc, and though the album is undeniably spotty, it also has a handful of absolutely fantastic moments, namely “Love, In Itself” (which unexpectedly works both a piano and acoustic guitar into the instrumental mix), “Told You So,” and best of all, Gore’s first true masterpiece, the propulsive haunting synth-pop of “Everything Counts.” This disc is truly where the band’s trademark sound is officially born.

Some Great Reward (1984, Sire)

A   

Easily the band’s best album to this point, this disc finds Martin Gore in top form as a songwriter and Dave Gahan turning in his best work yet as the band’s lead vocalist, and it wasn’t only a major artistic success but a commercial one as well, the group finally landing its first American Top 40 hit with the punchy, near-industrial synth-pop of the brilliant “People Are People” (easily one of Gore’s finest moments as a lyricist; the couplet “So far it hasn’t surfaced, but I’m sure it exists / It just takes a while to travel from your head to your fists” in particular is as brilliant a line as he’s ever penned.) But, unlike the previous discs, which tended to be only sporadically entertaining at best between singles, there’s precious little filler here. Cuts like “Something to Do” and “Lie to Me” might not have a whole lot going on lyrically, especially the former, but they’re not boring, either, and the melodic hooks are surprisingly immediate for being non-single material. In addition to “People Are People,” the disc also sports several other all-time Depeche Mode classics in “Master & Servant,” the button-pushing “Blasphemous Rumours,” and, best of all, the bare-bones, Martin Gore-sung piano ballad “Somebody,” arguably the prettiest song he’s ever written.

Black Celebration (1986, Sire)

B  

Arguably the most overrated album in the band’s catalog, Black Celebration is hailed by a sizable number of hardcore Depeche Mode fans as the best album they ever made, and to be fair, it does make a pretty cohesive and admirably ambitious album piece. But it also sounds like the product of a band desperately trying to run away from the fact that they now have a Top 40 hit to their name in “People Are People.” Perhaps that’s exactly why many fans like this album, but it also means that your average music listener will find this a much harder album to gravitate towards than, say, Some Great Reward or Violator. Not only is this a very dark and gloomy album (although by no means the most depressing album they ever made – that would arrive much later with Ultra), but there are hardly any immediate hooks or easily memorable melodies here to latch onto, making this album stand in stark contrast to the hook-packed Some Great Reward. (It might have helped quite a bit had the band simply saved the delightful songs “Shake the Disease” and “It’s Called a Heart” for this album, but, alas, they got utilized instead as sales bait on the 1985 compilation Catching up with Depeche Mode.) This isn’t to say the album is without its decent moments – “Stripped” and “A Question of Lust” are actually quite good, while “Here Is the House” is one of the band’s more underrated ‘80s sides and the appealing “But Not Tonight” vaguely recalls the fun pop of the band’s early days with Vince Clarke in the fold – but while the album may make for a pretty artistic whole, as far as individual songs go, it’s really hard not to wish that the band had crafted some stronger melodies for these songs.

Music for the Masses (1987, Sire)

A +    

The title of this album, while meant to be ironic, is actually rather fitting, since the disc really does give off the impression that the band is trying to make music for the masses again after the fairly uncommercial detour that was Black Celebration. The band hasn’t completely retreated back to the more playful pop of Some Great Reward and its predecessors, and this album still has a slightly ominous feel at times, but it’s not quite as dark as Black Celebration, either, and, more importantly, Martin Gore is making a much stronger effort here at crafting memorable melodies and winning hooks. The band would be rewarded nicely for their efforts, too, the singles here – including the wildly catchy club favorite “Strangelove,” the cavernous slow-burning rock of “Never Let Me Down Again,” and “Behind the Wheel” – easily outperforming those from Black Celebration, while the world tour surrounding this album would be the band’s most successful yet and would get documented on the live set 101.  Aside from the delightful set of singles, the disc also sports a nice helping of winning album cuts, particularly “Little 15,” “To Have and to Hold,” “Sacred,” and “Nothing.”

Violator (1990, Sire)

A +

Easily the band’s finest hour and a synth-pop masterpiece, the band’s first album of the Nineties finds them maintaining just enough of their old synth-pop sound to not alienate longtime fans but allowing themselves the freedom to explore new territory, bringing a more pronounced rock influence to the proceedings (never before has a Depeche album featured such prominent guitar and cavernous drumming) and also working in an audible – but not overbearing – industrial influence. The disc has also got the band’s overall best set of songs since Some Great Reward, the biggest standout being the inventive club cut “Enjoy the Silence” (“All I ever wanted / all I ever needed is here in my arms / Words are very unnecessary…”), deservedly the band’s biggest American chart hit, climbing all the way to #8 on the Hot 100. The album sports two additional Top 40 hits in the soulful, slow-burning eerie synth-funk of “Policy of Truth” and the much-covered pounding guitar blues of the televangelist-mocking “Personal Jesus.” “World in My Eyes” is another standout and should have followed the aforementioned three singles into the Top 40, while the ominous industrial-tinged “Halo” ranks among the band’s all-time catchiest non-singles and boasts one of Dave Gahan’s greatest and most nuanced vocal performances.