What a long, strange trip it's been. From their lowly incarnation as
awkward synth-pop wannabes fronted by a chubby Elvis lookalike in the 1980s,
Depeche Mode finally became, by the time I saw them for 1993's tour for the
piece de resistance of their oeuvre, Songs of Faith and
Devotion, the ultimate '90s Rock Band. Combining dirty rock guitar riffs
with their by-now trademark dark brand of pulsing synthesizers, the newly
svelte, goateed and swaggeringly macho David Gahan's impassioned singing and
energetic stage presence proved the perfect vehicle for Martin Gore's fey,
intellectually kinky songwriting. Like some wild amalgam of the Doors,
Kraftwerk, David Bowie, and Albert Camus, DM now had it all in one unique
package: brains, brawn and beauty.
The authority with which Gahan delivered Gore-composed lines like "I would
tell you about the things they put me through . . . But the Lord himself
would blush" last time out indicated that the band was indeed not merely
projecting an image, but had in fact merged with the mythos
created by previous decadent icons like The Velvet Underground and
The Spiders From Mars, and were now living it out large, in direct
contradiction of the prevailing anti-rock star grunge ethic of the time.
Sure enough, the fallout from the "Devotional" tour--whose ranks included a
full-time drug dealer and which clearly rivals anything Led Zeppelin ever got
up to in terms of pure pagan debauchery--was one defection from the ranks
(Alan Wilder), one nervous breakdown (Andy Fletcher), one mild heart attack
(Gore), and both a suicide attempt and a drug related flatline (Gahan).
With all that has taken place between the "Devotional" tour and
Ultra, then, it comes as no surprise that the overall vibe here is
subdued in comparison to the epic sweep of the prior studio album. This is
Depeche Mode in a period of retrenchment, returning to the dark
romanticism of earlier albums like Some Great Reward and
Black Celebration, as well as to their more electronically-oriented
sound, just in time to catch a ride on the "electronica" (already an annoying
term) wave of the late '90s. Where many of today's synthesizer boffins aim
for an impersonality that borders on emotional sterility, however, DM as
usual here invest the genre with the fallout from their own turbulent psyches
(Ultra was recorded a mere two months after Gahan's near-fatal OD),
proving that they've always been one step ahead of the game.
"Barrel of a Gun" opens the album in rousing fashion, as if in defiance of
the band's recent past, mixed loud enough to knock you off your seat.
More in line with the band's '90s material, this is one of the most raucously
twisted things they've yet attempted, which is saying something. Gahan's
voice, distorted until it is nearly unrecognizable, rides atop a thunderous
beat which constantly seems on the verge of careening out of control;
perversely, Gore puts lines like "Whatever I've done / I've been staring down
the barrel of a gun" in the mouth of his tormented lead singer,
engaging the love/hate dynamic which animates Depeche Mode. The
addictive "It's No Good" the other hard-edged number here, melds a
Kraftwerkian synth with a descending electro-bassline and is probably already
in heavy rotation in the strip clubs of the Western world, it's very
sound redolent of the various types of activities which take place in
darkened rooms, away from the invasive light of 9-to-5 society.
The remainder of the album dwells in a sonic space more suggestive of the
aftermath of an incredible evening of debauchery: somewhat forlorn, yet
also strangely at peace. "Sister of Night," for example, cushions Gahan's
lovely, forlorn vocal in a cascading bank of ambient, ethereal
synthesizers, the song's stately progression oddly framed by bursts of
discordant sound, hinting at the psychic chaos which lay just behind the
song's overall mood of placid fragility. The similarly balladic "Freestate"
achieves an ominous tone courtesy of a bluesy slide guitar which
takes the band into the realm of spaghetti goth a la The Dirty Three.
Gore, whose theatrical vocal turns are always a highlight of DM's shows, as
usual skirts the line between tremulous passion and self-parody on "Home"
and "The Bottom Line" and, also as usual, gets away with it.
As compared to the more self-consciously arty evocations of ennui and
despair earlier in their career, DM this time have produced an emotional work
drawn from experience, working the same desolate "vein" as their superfan
Tricky did last year on Nearly God and Pre-Millennium Tension.
Defiantly non-ironic, made for closed bedroom doors and headphones at
3am, this is music for those times when--as Leonard Cohen, whose work
Ultra is closest to in spirit--once said, "life isn't all that funny."