Some records take time… Like any work of art – be that a movie or a book – sometimes it takes a while for the work to “grow” on you. Depeche Mode’s new album Momento Mori, which came out a few weeks ago, is that type of record. I had to listen to it repeatedly to crack the code. Many records click in my head on the first listen but that didn’t happen with Memento Mori. I realize not everybody is going to be willing to work for the rewards this album will bring but for those who are patient, this is a really good album.
I will admit, anticipation for this new Depeche Mode album, their 15th studio record, was running high here at B&V. We absolutely loved their last LP, 2017’s Spirit. That album was full of rousing anthems like “Where’s The Revolution” and “Going Backwards.” Some critics were put off by Depeche veering into the realm of political commentary in song but I felt it was perfect for the times. Some artists just have a knack for capturing the zeitgeist of a particular moment in time. The Rock Chick and I were so enamored with Spirit, we traveled twice to see them in concert, both in Denver and then in Tulsa.
I’ve been a fan of most of the band’s records from this new millennium, especially Delta Machine. Depeche has been on the track where they deliver an album about every four years. But it’s been six years since Spirit. That long wait probably also fueled our anticipation but as I’m fond of saying anticipation can be tricky. Unchecked anticipation will easily lead you to disappointment. One of the reasons for the longer gap between record had to be the death of founding member Andy Fletcher (keyboards) who did not play on any of the tracks on Memento Mori. And of course the world faced a global pandemic during that stretch of time which obviously had a huge impact on the tone and subject matter of the record. Principle songwriter Martin Gore (guitar/keyboards/vocals) began writing these songs during the lockdown. He started writing many of the tracks with Psychedelic Furs front man Richard Butler. Gore was originally going to release those tracks on a side project, but ended up sending them to lead singer Dave Gahan and they ended up on Momento Mori.
Based on the cover art, a photo of two flower arrangements in the shape of angel’s wings, I figured this album would be a requiem for Fletch. I certainly thought so after hearing the great first single, “Ghosts Again,” which I previously reviewed. But I think the darkness on this album is more universal. These songs were born out of the pandemic, a real low point in my lifetime, and they reflect that dark energy. While Spirit was full of rousing, fighting anthems, Memento Mori is more midtempo throughout. The sound is more industrial rock (albeit on the mellower end of the spectrum) than their previous smoother rock n roll. Perhaps Depeche – now just Gore and Gahan – have once again captured the world’s zeitgeist but it’s just heavier. This album is all about mortality. That can be tough for people to get into. There are many examples of an artist turning their mind towards mortality and I’ve always found it fascinating: Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, Springsteen’s Letter To You, and McCartney’s Dance Tonight while wildly different musically than Memento Mori, cover the same topic. And honestly, it’s not all mortality. There are also songs about obsession and unrequited love.
Musically I must say Gahan’s voice is still magical. The guy has not lost anything over the years. Gore has created such a layered and intricate set of musical textures and moods for Gahan to sing over. Gore will never end up on anybody’s “greatest guitarists of all time” lists but I’ve always been intrigued by the sounds he conjures. Whether it’s an accent or a full on Nine Inch Nails assault on the ears, the guy does interesting things with the six string. The best tracks are where Gahan sings and Gore provides a harmony. Again, if you’re willing to put in the work, this album will grow on you and get under your skin.
The album begins with “My Cosmos Is Mine,” that creeps over you like a sinister fog enveloping a city. Gahan sounds otherworldly on this track. It certainly sets the table for whats coming. At one point it sounds like prayer in desperate times, “No war, no war, no war, No more, no more, no more, no more, No fear, no fear, no fear, no fear, Not here, not here, not here, not here…” That track leads to the second, “Wagging Tongues,” considerably less dense track. This is where Gahan sings with Martin on harmony and it’s money. It’s got a skipping keyboard figure and tinny percussion. “Watch another angel die…” The next track is the sensational new single, “Ghosts Again.” I may have described it as mellow but it’s one of the more upbeat moments here.
“Don’t Say You Love Me,” where Gahan comes on as a chanteuse, is like a song from the most depressing ballroom on the planet. It starts with glacial guitar and keyboards. It’s a powerful torch song/ballad. They then turn on the next track to a more industrial/NIN kind of sound for “My Favorite Stranger.” It’s got tortured guitar and jittery percussion. “My favorite stranger, stand in my mirror, puts words in my mouth…” It sounds like Gahan is a serial killer singing to himself in front of a full length mirror. It certainly begs the question, can we ever know ourselves completely? “Soul With Me” is the Martin lead vocal song. He’s like Keef in the Stones, he gets a track on every album. He’s warbling here and I don’t really dig it. I do like the chorus… “Caroline’s Monkey” is next and it’s really elevated by Gahan’s vocals. I feel like the song never takes off the way it was supposed to but it does pick up in the middle.
“Before We Drown” is one of my favorite songs on the album. It’s more sweeping and grand. “I’ve been thinking, I could come back home…” It’s all about reaching back to a lover and asking, let’s try again. Gahan’s vocal on the track is certainly something special. “People Are Good” harkens back to early Depeche and “People Are People” only this track is more cynical. Over metallic percussion Gahan sings “People are good, keep fooling yourself.” It’s another highlight. “Always You” is a love song bordering on obsession. It turns the concept of the love song on it’s head. Is it romantic or menacing? It’s another great song. The best tracks on this album all seem to be toward the end. “Never Let Me Go” is another NIN squalling guitar song. It also lyrically calls to mind “Never Let Me Down Again,” although not musically. It’s marinated in romantic frustration. The music is discomfiting. Gahan almost spits out the words “I’ve been so patient, I have been so calm.” The album ends on the chilling ballad “Speak To Me” in the same vein as the aforementioned “Don’t Say You Love Me.” I love the line “You’d be my drug of choice.” While it’s a very slow song it builds to a wonderful crescendo.
Any Depeche Mode album the critics love tends to be described as “their best album since Violator.” I think Depeche has put out a number of great records since that landmark album so I shy away from that description. If pressed, I’d admit that I liked Spirit better but it was an easier, more accessible listen. I know not everybody is going to take the time to let this album grow on you – the Rock Chick gave it one listen, described it as “music to weep to,” and left it behind. But it’s albums like this – that grow on me – that tend to stick with me the longest over the years. Everybody should listen to this album, but do so more than once or twice. It wasn’t what I expected but anticipation leads to expectations and no album should be listened to through the filter of expectations. Listen to this one with the headphones on and eventually, like a flower opening, it will reveal itself to you.
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