Asked to describe what distinguishes Depeche Mode's upcoming album, The Singles '86-'98 (Oct. 6), from their collection of hits released in 1985, bandmember Andy "Fletch" Fletcher made it brief.
"It's better," he said.
In some ways, he was joking.
In others, he wasn't.
The latest retrospective -- a 21-song landmark that features such gloomy, keyboard-driven electronic pop hits as "Never Let Me Down Again," "Personal Jesus" (RealAudio excerpt), "Policy of Truth" and a new single, "Only When I Lose Myself" -- covers an era in the British synth-pop band's career that keyboardist Fletcher, 37, said was its most fertile and artistically satisfying.
"We're a lot more proud of this one than [Catching Up With Depeche Mode, the band's first singles collection]," Fletcher said from his New York hotel room. "That one had some good stuff on it, but there were also some songs where we were a bit naive. I sometimes listen to that first one, and I have the fondest memories and funniest stories from that era when we first started out, but we were only kids then."
Primarily composed of songs from five of the band's late '80s/early '90s albums -- Black Celebration (1986), Music for the Masses (1987), Violator (1990), Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993) and Ultra (1997) -- the new collection encapsulates an era when the band mutated from a primarily keyboard-based sound to a flirtation with heavier, more guitar-rich textures and back again.
According to Fletcher, the collection documents how the group has always tried to update its sound by incorporating new sonic elements without losing the central components of its style: singer Dave Gahan's brooding voice and keyboardist/songwriter Martin Gore's distinctively melancholy lyrics and music.
Fletcher said he's not as happy as Gore or Gahan about the four tunes from Songs of Faith and Devotion -- "I Feel You" (RealAudio excerpt), "Walking In My Shoes," "Condemnation" and "In Your Room" -- because he didn't like the idea of DM becoming a "normal rock band." At that point in the band's development, Gahan had returned from an extended, early '90s stay in Los Angeles with an American accent and new ideas about a grungier sound.
"I think we can rock," Fletcher said, "but we're not a great rock band. We're a great pop band, in English terms, that can rock out occasionally."
"[Gore] has that gift, that one-in-a-billion thing that can make for the perfect pop song," said 1500 Records co-founder Gary Richards, expressing his admiration for the Depeche Mode composer. "I see him in the same light as John Lennon. He has that magic, where his songs are so simple and so perfect."
Richards' label is about to release For the Masses (Aug. 4), a DM tribute album that features covers of their songs by artists such as the Smashing Pumpkins, God Lives Underwater, Veruca Salt and the Deftones. Fletcher was particularly pleased with the liberties that bands such as Rammstein, a German industrial group, took with DM staples. The modest keyboardist even went so far as to praise Failure's cover of "Enjoy the Silence" as being better than DM's original, which he pegged as "a bit worrying."
Depeche Mode recently wrapped a New York video shoot for "Only When I Lose Myself," directed by Brian Griffin, said Fletcher, who described the video as "way out there." Although Fletcher said his contribution to the video consisted of him sitting at a table and doing nothing for half an hour, he recalled hearing that the special-effects-heavy clip for the atmospheric song would eventually feature lots of car wrecks and other high-tech elements to be added at a later date.
Although Fletcher said Depeche Mode were kept from touring in support of 1997's Ultra by Gahan's enrollment in a drug-rehabilitation program following several years of drug abuse, the keyboardist said the band is looking forward to its fall U.S. concert tour, which will kick off in October. "At the time, none of us were mentally or physically tough enough to tour," Fletcher said. "But Dave is more ready than any of us now. He's really fit and in great physical shape."
The full track-listing for the new singles collection is: "Stripped" (RealAudio excerpt), "A Question of Lust," "A Question of Time," "Strangelove," "Never Let Me Down Again," "Behind the Wheel," "Personal Jesus," "Enjoy the Silence," "Policy of Truth," "World In My Eyes," "I Feel You," "Walking In My Shoes," "Condemnation," "In Your Room," "Barrel of a Gun," "It's No Good," "Home," "Useless," "Only When I Lose Myself," "Little Fifteen" and a live version of "Everything Counts."