November 23, 2003
...and you liked it. So now what?
Well, as catchy and sexy as "Personal Jesus" is, it is not DM's best song ever. But if you like it a lot, this is a good sign that you might make an excellent acolyte of the Basildon Four (now three).
There will be those die-hard Tiger Beat subscribers who try to tell you with a straight face that early DM -- "Just Can't Get Enough," "See You," and that sort of the thing -- was just the best music ever! Don't let them fool you. I like some of Depeche Mode's moldy oldies, but the revolution that began with Black Celebration in 1986 brought into being the best band of the 1980s, and in my own opinion, the best band of all time.
The first disc covers Black Celebration through Violator. "Stripped" got virtually nothing in terms of airplay when it was released -- in fact, its b-side "But Not Tonight" was much more throwaway and therefore appealing to mainstream audiences. But for many new listeners, "Stripped" will be worth ingraining mentally via the "repeat one" button. It's that good. Not only does it drown you in its hormone-drenched sensuality, but it carries an underlying message about escaping the bleakness of urban life. This is typical of DM: an overt sexuality hooks you first, but what keeps you hooked is a surprising depth and intelligence in the lyrics.
Particularly with the songs on the first disc of this compilation, you will find that DM songs are stuctured in layers. This contributes to the songs' complexity and addictiveness in ways that other songs of the era just can't touch. "Enjoy the Silence," for example, opens with a simple house rhythm, choral samples, and some moody synth that sounds to me like dripping water. But as the strings and meandering acoustic guitar kick in, the song becomes powerfully melancholy and introspective, a danceable revelation of gloom and loneliness.
"A Question of Lust" is another song rich in layered sound. At any given time you become aware of one sound more than the others -- an unusual percussion resonance, or subtle atmospherics that seem more audible at some times than others, or just Martin Gore's airy, earnest voice. A shamelessly pretty ballad that could have veered into trite sappiness, but instead holds up as a complex and cerebral study on the nature of fidelity and jealousy.
Disc 2 covers Songs of Faith and Devotion, Ultra, and a few odds and ends. You might notice a shift here; in the song "Condemnation," for example, Dave Gahan's voice seems pretty ragged after all the partying of the World Violator tour. It's a far cry from the velvety seduction of the previous three albums, and it takes some getting used to. At the same time, some of the more rock-oriented fans would argue that the aggressive grind of songs like "I Feel You" and "In Your Room" represents the pinnacle of DM's sonic development. "Barrel of a Gun," from the Ultra album, never really was a favorite for me; the guitar always seemed obnoxious, and lacking in the subtlety that I always felt was a hallmark of DM songs. "Useless," however, is one of my all-time favorite DM songs, and "Home" packs as much of an emotional punch as anything they've done.
"Only When I Lose Myself" constitutes the only strictly new material on the compilation, a meditation on the kind of girl you know you should stay away from -- but you chase her anyhow. I hear people knock this song sometimes, but I like its rhythm and the hint of danger it suggests. A good song to hear in a fast car on a dark night. "Little 15" really ought to be on disc 1 with the other Music for the Masses songs, but I suppose we should be glad it was included at all. If I am not mistaken, the single was originally a Europe-only release. Finally, "Everything Counts" is from the 101 album, so even though the song was originally written and performed in 1983 or so, its presence here is justified as our version was recorded in Pasadena, June of 1988.
The Singles 86>98 brings together a broad sampling of Depeche Mode's best work, and serves as an excellent introduction to the band. I have only two real complaints: 1) the single versions are not always as good as the album versions ("Condemnation," "Behind the Wheel," "Useless," and "Policy of Truth" all readily come to mind); and 2) I think that two discs can carry more than 21 songs. Some interesting oddities and b-sides would certainly have been welcome here. If you can, snatch the version of this compilation that also comes with a third disc of four remixes. All of them are good, particularly the Quad: Final Mix of "Enjoy the Silence."