Album of the Week, March 30: Black Celebration by Depeche Mode

DMBlackCelebrationDepeche Mode formed in 1980 when Vince Clarke (keyboards, guitar, vocals), Andy Fletcher (bass, keyboards) and Martin Gore (keyboards, backing vocals) joined forces. They had known each other for some time as members of bands that rant into each other regularly and shared a deep love of the music of the Cure. Inspired by OMD’s pioneering first single, Electricity, they jettisoned the guitar and bass, focusing on an all-synth sound. David Gahan soon joined, taking over lead vocals as Clarke focused on writing and musical direction. The quartet released Speak & Spell, one of the most significant early synth-pop albums, centered on Clarke’s unerring sense of pop construction and a growing group confidence in electronic music. Clarke quickly tired of the spotlight, wanting to make music and avoid press and publicity, and left the band. The remaining trio floundered a bit as Gore took over writing duties and new member Alan Wilder added more keyboard textures and began to assume the musical direction duties. After two albums of Clarke-like synth pop that showed Gore’s steady growth and interest in larger themes and saw steady progress on the UK charts, they broke through internationally. The single People Are People and its album Some Great Reward showed an amazing leap in musical confidence and complexity.

Title Black Celebration
Act Depeche Mode
Label Sire / mute Release Date March 17, 1986
Producer Depeche Mode, Gareth Jones and Daniel Miller
U.S. Chart  90 U.K. Chart  4
Tracks
  1. Black Celebration
  2. Fly On the Windscreen — Final
  3. A Question of Lust
  4. Sometimes
  5. It Doesn’t Matter Two
  6. A Question of Time
  7. Stripped
  8. Here Is the House
  9. World Full of Nothing
  10. Dressed In Black
  11. New Dress
  12. But Not Tonight

Black Celebration moves that model forward by light years. Increasing the electronic experimentation and sound sampling, the quartet crafted a cohesive statement on what the album sleeve describes as “Life in the so-called Space Age.” Exploring themes of personal and global politics, alienation, love, and need, Depeche Mode made their masterpiece, the template for their growth into the first Arena Rock synth band.

Things kick off with the band’s only title track in their long career. Black Celebration builds slowly into a perfect anthem for the album. Gahan is in his finest vocal form, growling through the fact that everyone’s made it out of another day alive. It’s classic DM at their finest and gets things warmed up perfectly. The rest of the disc balances the confessional, the political, and the interpersonal nicely.

The latter category includes Here Is the House, an aching first-time love story with a dark edge. Gahan nearly croons the lyric giving the song a warmth that belies its undercurrents. Dressed In Black is a fun-and-games song reminiscent of the previous album’s Master And Servant but oddly more subtle and menacing. Stripped, the album’s first single, rounds out this category with a stark statement of need. Gahan demands a relationship with no secrets, forging one of the darker love songs in the band’s long career.

Three songs take a look at politics outside the bedroom. A Question of Time builds on a personal theme, looking at the pressures society puts on people to conform and the toll that takes on relationships. Urgent and driving, it opens with an electronic screech and builds in intensity from there. New Dress looks at the power of the press and the shallow concerns that eat away our days. It’s the most obvious track on the disc, but works well in context. Fly On the Windscreen — Final, is a rebuild of a previous B-Side. Just as cheery as the title implies, the new version fits perfectly on the album as it explores that “death is everywhere” and we ought to celebrate what and while we can.

Another sort of rebuild is It Doesn’t Matter Two. Unlike version one, an off-kilter romance ballad from Some Great Reward, this track is far bleaker, wondering if love and trust can actually make this dark world a better place. Both songs are sung by writer Martin Gore. His voice is just similar enough to Gahan’s to blend in well, but more fragile, suited to the confessional tone of the tracks he takes lead on. Black Celebration features four Gore lead vocals, more than any other of the band’s discs. The others fit a similar mold, like World Full of Nothing, a sweet but dark observation that “though it’s not love it means something.” Sometimes includes a near-gospel choir element and an elegant backing more complex than most of Gore’s leads. It’s an aching look at how a couple’s needs can complement each other and one of his finer performances. Surprisingly, he trumps himself with A Question of Lust another relatively optimistic look at love. Gore sings compellingly of the multiple forces that go into a strong relationship providing another of this strong album’s high points.

Curiously, the finest moment almost didn’t make the album. But Not Tonight is a charming celebration of life that the band thought of as a throwaway, relegating it to the B-side of the Stripped single. Fortunately, the US label flipped the single and included the song as the closing track. Gahan is almost giddy as he steadfastly refuses to be brought down by anything from the rain to the oppressive forces he and Gore have sung about for most of the disc. It’s a glorious ray of gritty sunshine that pulls the whole album together, emphasizing the Celebration of the title.

FURTHER LISTENING: Depeche Mode have always been a strong singles band, and with the exception of this album most of their best work was either extracted from albums as singles or recorded independent of any album. The Singles 81→85 captures all the band’s best moments prior to Black Celebration. Of their later work, Violator stands out as a strong disc in its own right and Songs of Faith and Devotion (their only #1 on the US album chart) is a striking change of pace, adding guitars back into the mix to good effect. The Singles 86→98 features the best of these two discs and the others from that timeframe, wrapping up just after Alan Wilder departed, leaving behind the trio that continues as Depeche Mode today.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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