Electronic music pioneers Depeche Mode practically invented a genre of dark, melancholic synthpop. Their influence runs wide—nearly every band I write about draws inspiration from their extensive catalog.
Given that storied legacy, Depeche Mode has acquired enough goodwill that they can command massive hype for a new album despite running far past their prime. The Mode’s last two albums, Delta Machine and Spirit, are particularly bad, fraught with bluesy machinations and hamstrung lyrics.
Yet the hype for Memento Mori, their 15th studio album, remains high.
It helps that Memento Mori comes with it a built-in storyline. It’s the first album since the untimely death of founding member Andy Fletcher and the first since DM became a duo. They do get production assists from musicians James Ford, their co-producer on Spirit, and Marta Salogni. Inexplicably, Richard Butler of Psychedelic Furs also turns up to cowrite four songs, including the album’s weirdest and least-Depeche moment, “Caroline’s Monkey.”
Death looms large over Memento Mori. Its 12 tracks approach it directly (“Watch another angel die” on “Wagging Tongue”) and subtly (“There’s only so much time we have to play with” on “Never Let Me Go”). Supposedly, they settled on the title, latin for “Remember that you must die,” before Fletch’s passing. In keeping with the album’s deathly theme, the music feels modest and mellow, sometimes bland and boring.
But the best thing about Memento Mori is that they’ve mostly abandoned the bluesy vibe that’s defined DM’s post-2000 catalog. Thumping industrial beats and skittering electronics abound. With the exception of the Urge Overkill-aping “Don’t Say You Love Me,” there’s little of the bluesy guitar trappings that made Delta Machine one of their biggest misfires.
They’ve figured out how to combine the soulful sounds Martin Gore adores with electro soundscapes of album’s past. A track like “Before We Drown” would be a snoozer—and right at home on Exciter—without the static synth patter that emerges between the verses.
On one of the album’s standout tracks, “People Are Good,” a sinister beat rumbles from the deep, and stabs of electronic racket feel fresh and creative. Dave Gahan’s vocals retain the sensual confidence he’s known for, though he’s hampered here by some clunky lyrics: “And they’re all full of love. It’s just their patience gets tried.” We’ve come a long way from the gravitas of “People Are People.”
Depeche Mode can’t completely escape their recent fumbles. “Never Let Me Go” amps up the album’s energy with dynamic guitar licks, but Gahan starts crooning on the chorus in a particularly drab manner. Opening track “The Cosmos is Mine” could have been an electro-industrial masterpiece, but it’s unforgivably marred by a sophomoric bridge (“No war, no war, no war”) that carries a strong whiff of “The train is coming.”
That brings me to the Martin Gore-sung “Soul With Me.” Gore’s balmy demeanor and a delicately tapped snare give it an easy listening vibe that feels earmarked for the dentist’s chair—listening to it is a stark reminder that Depeche Mode is an oldies band.