On their 15th full-length, the pioneering synth-pop group — now a duo — questions mortality with their characteristic musical beauty and lyrical depth
IN “GHOSTS AGAIN,” one of many introspective moments on Depeche Mode’s 15th full-length, Memento Mori, Dave Gahan croons, “Time is fleeting.” This is not a new revelation, but the tranquility in his voice feels fresh. More than four decades have passed since the group formed as a quartet of mostly teens eager to immerse themselves in the nascent synth-pop culture with party anthems like “Just Can’t Get Enough.” Now, with only Gahan and Martin Gore left in the lineup following the death last year of keyboardist Andy “Fletch” Fletcher, they’re asking, “How much time do we have left?”
Melancholy has long been an important part of the Depeche Mode experience, and, other than in their earliest days when Vince Clarke (later of Yazoo) was leading the group with carefree dance songs, they’ve specialized in vulnerability. That openness, a sense of surrender, is the essential ingredient to Depeche Mode now. Even at their most romantic, like on, say, “Enjoy the Silence,” they’ve acknowledged how recognizing the absences in life are just as important as appreciating what you have. So it’s not surprising that the group, whose two members are now in their 60s, titled the album Memento Mori — a friendly reminder in Latin that you will (nay, must!) die someday — and they picked it while Fletch was still alive. (Fletch’s death didn’t make them second-guess the title. Instead, Gore has said, “It cemented it.”)
Acknowledging mortality defines much of Memento Mori, but it never feels heavy handed or even all that sullen. Some of the tracks even sound upbeat.
On “Wagging Tongue,” a rare Gahan-Gore songwriting collaboration, Gahan sings about feeling sadness “when you watch another angel die” over sparkly New Wave synths that recall the group’s earliest work. The lyrics, which Gahan sings ominously, could be a metaphoric indictment of politicians needing to act on gun safety or Gahan could be singing about rising above personal obstacles, but, either way, with the shimmery keyboard backdrop, the words have a way of sticking in your brain. And the album’s best song, “Soul With Me,” begins with an ambient intro that recalls the Eno-esque second side of David Bowie’s Low album before settling into a lightly poppy rhythm over which Gore serenely sings, “I’m going where the angels fly … and I’m taking my soul with me” over chords that also build Heavenward. The music sounds so gentle, almost like sci-fi easy listening, that it’s easy to be swept away in the chords while missing Gore’s allusions to a stairway to heaven and bidding adieu to this mortal coil.
The duo still specializes in pensiveness, too. “Before We Drown,” cowritten by Gahan, drummer Christian Eigner and multi-instrumentalist Peter Gordeno (members of Depeche Mode’s touring lineup), builds tension minute after minute, as Gahan sings, “First we stand up, then we fall down/We have to move forward, before we drown.” Synths effervesce eerily like fireworks around his voice as he sings the final words. “Always You” features buzzy synths and an emulation of steel drums buried deep in the track as Gahan places all his hope in someone, “You’re all I need to keep believing.”
And on “People Are Good” — a Gore composition which feels like the long lost coda for “People Are People” — Gahan reminds himself that despite all the ills of the world, people are supposed to be good. The music, which builds layer upon layer, recalls the group’s mid-Eighties sound of Black Celebration and Music for the Masses; “Everything will be all right in time” they offer, before returning to the original message: “Keep fooling yourself that people are good.”
Occasionally, the sense of absence in the songs feels overwhelming; the chorus to “Caroline’s Monkey” is brutally sparse and stilted, as Gahan sarcastically sings, “Folding’s better than losing/Fixing’s better than healing” before eventually landing on “sometimes.” But mostly, the group packages its dark thoughts in ways that pay tribute to its past while acknowledging ghosts that haunt the present, and the spirits yet to come.
The final track, “Speak to Me,” even feels like Depeche Mode’s version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” via fuzzy Nick Cave synths and Gahan’s pleas for human contact. “I’d be grateful [to connect with you], I’d follow you around,” he sings, “I’m listening, I’m here now, I’m found,” before the synths crescendo into a cacophony. As always with Depeche Mode, everything counts in large amounts, and on Memonto Mori, the stakes feel bigger than ever.