Depeche Mode are a band who’ve existed at extremes. On their journey from squeaky-clean popsters to alternative titans they’ve lived a fast, hard life. Lead singer Dave Gahan’s brushes with death are infamous, including a drug-induced episode in 1996 where his heart stopped beating for two minutes. Similarly dramatic has been their creative timeline too: members like Vince Clarke and Alan Wilder departed at inopportune moments, and creative tension has occasionally simmered between Gahan and fellow co-founder Martin Gore. You can’t make an omelette the size that The ‘Mode have without breaking a few eggs, after all.
But even so, the death of keyboardist Andy Fletcher, aged 60, last year proved gutting. Alongside Gahan and Gore, he was a founding member and played a crucial role in tempering egos and kept the ship sailing. Speaking to NME, Gahan said: “Fletch was going to outlive all of us” and that now that he’s gone “it still doesn’t feel real.” The band were unsure whether they ought to press on with recording ‘Memento Mori’, their 15th record and first in six years. Yet the loss of Fletch would bring Gore and Gahan closer together.
‘Memento Mori’ – which translates from Latin as ‘remember you must die’ – is informed by loss, but also salvation and resurgence. Following the troubled sessions of their last album ‘Spirit’ (2017), and the dynamic that’s seen Gore take on lead songwriting duties and Gahan to occasionally feel creatively stunted, there’s a renewed energy to collaborate and encourage here. Incorporating producer James Ford [Arctic Monkeys, Shame] into proceedings, alongside The Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler and co-producer Marta Salogni [Bjork, Frank Ocean], the skeleton crew that recorded the album following Fletch’s passing is a tight and potent one.
The subtle, understated pace of ‘Ghosts Again’ is the sound of two compadres, bound by history to keep moving forward, even if the nihilism shines through: “Time is fleeting / See what it brings”, Gahan sighs. Likewise, on the Gahan-penned ‘Wagging Tongue’ a spritely synth line is undermined by tales from “the great divide” and being forced to “watch another angel die”. They’re almost cloyingly obsessed with the topic, but Gore’s gorgeous delivery on ‘Soul With Me’, a ballad that shares the same aurora and chords as modern R&B, is phenomenal: “I’m ready for the final pages / Kiss goodbye to all my earthly cages / I’m climbing up the golden stairs”.
There are always concerns that ‘legacy’ acts of this stature play it safe, exploiting their cultural footprint to flog tickets and reissues – not the case here. ‘Memento Mori’ actually poses somewhat of a hurdle to overcome as Depeche Mode kick off their massive world tour this summer: when the songs are this strong, how many classics can they cut out to do these new ones justice? ‘People Are Good’ has an iron-clad case, its stadium-shaking bass and beats ready to hold its place next to 1990 hit ‘Enjoy The Silence’; ‘Before We Drown’s chugging industrial feel piles on the ‘Never Let Me Down’-sized theatrics.
To have an album of this quality after what the band have been through may seem miraculous, but Depeche Mode have always turned turmoil, tension and life’s darker moments into magic. ‘Memento Mori’ is comfortably their best album this side of the millennium, and, most importantly, a testament to creativity and friendship. The music world is richer for it.
- Release date: March 24, 2023
- Record label: Columbia