Today (22 March) marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Depeche Mode's eighth album 'Songs Of Faith And Devotion' and also the eve of the release of new – 13th – studio album 'Delta Machine', which on first listen sounds like another forbidding techno-industrial beast. Seems the time's ripe for assessing the Basildon synth-pervs' weighty back catalogue.
Something has to come last, and what better than the first time Depeche Mode tried Industrial? Inspired by Einstürzende Neubauten, they decided it all meant moving concrete slabs and hitting pots. Another alarming development was Martin Gore whipping out a guitar for 'Love In Itself' on Top Of The Pops. But for all the rubbish like 'PipeLine', 'Shame' and 'More Than A Party' (rock'n'roll Mode, anyone?), there's an 'Everything Counts' to soothe the pain. Call it 'transitional".
It could've all gone tits-up when Vince Clarke left after their debut album, but Depeche Mode came out fighting. The only plausible reaction to opener 'Leave In Silence' is 'Good Christ, what have we here?" as it throbs and whumps into DM's new dark heart. By the time we get to 'Monument', they're inventing techno just like Derrick May always said. Then it all goes cod reggae on 'Satellite' and everyone looks awkward.
On the one hand you've got the ridiculous hits like 'People Are People' and the S&M festival of 'Master And Servant'; on the other the twee 'Stories Of Old' and the bombastic void of 'Something To Do'. Sitting in the middle is Martin Gore's gorgeous 'Somebody', and general critical opinion. We'll stay on the fence here. It's the end of the first phase, with the pivotal 'Singles 81-85' just around the corner.
A quantum leap into the future now. Depeche Mode had emerged from the grisly old 90s with a singer who'd 'died" and come back wanting a slice of the songwriting action. Dave Gahan would get that next time around but here Gore's in sole charge for the last time, presiding over the masterful, bluesy 'Dream On', steam-pump synth ballad 'Comatose' and the electro doo-wop of closer 'Goodnight Lovers'. On the knobs for the one and only time is LFO's Mark Bell, creating an album of texture and depth.
After a four-year break, Depeche Mode's last album before this week's 'Delta Machine' found them barely missing a beat, three decades into their career. As on 'Playing The Angel', Gahan has three songwriting credits but it's not helping his state of mind. 'Words can leave you broken inside," he croaks on 'Hole To Feed'. Elsewhere he's behind the snaky acid and thwacking blues of 'Miles Away/The Truth Is' and fronting 'Corrupt', Gore's slow-burning, romping bastard featuring the charming lines, 'I could corrupt you/It would be easy/Watching you suffer/Girl, it would please me". No one's mellowing around here.
Back to the start. Now DM are these grizzled old gits with guitars to rough up their trademark synths and songs that wallow in filth and misery, it's easy to forget there was a time when they barely needed a razor blade between them and they had that bloke from Erasure at the back. 'Speak & Spell''s a glorious synth-pop debut though, from the 'Kraftwerk on poppers" 'I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead' to 'Just Can't Get Enough', a record that'll still fill floors decades after Gahan's final death.
The best of this century's Mode output so far (too early for a broad assessment of 'Delta Machine'), 'Playing The Angel' was the first helmed by some-time Blur and U2 producer Ben Hillier and the first to feature a smattering of Gahan songs. No matter who's penning them, the tracks advance like terror machines across jagged industrial deadzones, blasting vicious preacherism on 'John The Revelator' and outrageous twisted sirens of guitar on 'A Pain That I'm Used To'. Then 'Precious' is all smooth and propulsive – so many strings to their bow right now.
Gore wrote the songs but 'Ultra' is all 'Dave Gahan: 'My Drugs Hell'". Or, 'Here's what happened when we met Trent Reznor". To be honest, DM had given Nine Inch Nails enough inspiration so it's natural they should reach a similar point, and the 'Mode get there with their unparalleled pop chops intact – see the distorted, propulsive 'Barrel Of A Gun' and the muscular 'It's No Good'. The uncharacteristic pedal-steel-warmed 'The Bottom Line' takes the biscuit though.
Where Basildon Man turned Baritone Jesus. Utterly off his gourd, Gahan became the bedraggled rock dude, mustering all the righteousness at his disposal to growl over the obscene riffs of 'I Feel You', break down before his Lord on the mighty gospel of 'Condemnation' and poke about for a morsel of redemption on 'Higher Love'. 'Judas' is a bit Monarch Of The Glen, mind.
'Music For The Masses' is so good, 'Behind The Wheel' can start off like Tiffany's 'I Think We're Alone Now' and Depeche Mode lose none of their black-garbed punch. Other highlights include live perennial – and monstrous career highpoint – 'Never Let me Down Again', perverted electro throwback 'Strangelove' and the Satanically miserable 'Pimpf', as the band take their first baby steps towards their greatest triumph.
But before that, an equally important notch on the Mode trajectory. Coming directly after the story-so-far of 'Singles 81-85', 'Black Celebration' sounded like relief, as if the teen-pop era (however twisted it was getting) was over and now they could get down to the serious business of singing, 'You're only 15 and you look good/I'll take you under my wing/Somebody should". Ohhhhkaaay. Dodgy lyrics aside, the album excels through the bleak title track, Gore's atmospheric 'A Question Of Lust', that dubious live favourite 'A Question Of Time', gloomy, needy anthem 'Stripped' and the terrific pop-noir of 'Dressed In Black'. It's a statement of intent that they continue to fulfil.
After the awesome 1989 live album '101' (not here because, well, it's a live album), everyone knew Depeche Mode were a big deal. To the uninitiated, those plink-plonk Essex synth-boppers had just broken the States in almighty stadium style. It was a bit of a shock to the initiated too. After 'Violator', no one was surprised. Trailed the previous year by the twanging, musclebound 'Personal Jesus', it presented a 'Mode as comfortable in their skin as they'd ever been – still capable of pop corkers like 'Enjoy The Silence' and 'Policy Of Truth', but honing their eerie, threatening ballads in 'Halo' and 'Sweetest Perfection'. Like New Order with 'Technique' a year earlier, Depeche Mode had returned better than ever to show the upstarts how it's done.