Throughout the ‘80s, Depeche Mode was at the forefront of synthesized, alternative music, incorporating elements from many genres, electronic, goth, dance, industrial, that appealed to young misfits and teenage outcasts that populated the cities of Europe and the suburbs of America. They were trendsetters, creating the music they wanted, causing pop music to follow their lead. In 1984, Some Great Reward actually garnered them some as their songs gained more airplay with hits like “People Are People,” “Master and Servant,” and “Blasphemous Rumors.” Successive albums saw the band’s popularity grow until the critical mass of 1990’s Top Ten smash Violator.
The album that paved the way for their mainstream breakthrough was 1987’s Music For The Masses, whose title was an inside joke because the band only had a cult following, albeit devoted. On this album they used a new producer, Dave Bascomb, who had worked with Tears for Fears, because previous producer, Daniel Miller, had to devote more time to his record label.
Depeche Mode is known for their sound, and the music and arrangements do a great job of conveying emotions. However, I was struck by the stories told. The lyrics of the album detail the intimacy and ecstasy of love as well as the pain that can be attached to it, but love of what? Most songs are obviously about another person, but as with all good works of art, some songs are open to interpretation.
This album saw the expanded role of the guitar, made evident immediately from the opening notes of “Never Let Me Down Again” before the keyboards and drums come crashing in. The lyrics tell a story of the fleeting safety and security of putting your faith in something. On the surface, the lyrics begin with the narrator “taking a ride/With my best friend” who is “Taking me where I want to be.” As the song progresses, they’re “flying high/…watching the world pass us by/” and they “Never want to come down.”
These sentiments of the state of bliss love creates are also apropos of a user in the middle of a high as well as a believer uplifted by faith, and the song’s second half makes the latter two options more likely. The music backing the “flying high” lyrics creates a sense of floating. As the song concludes, an electronically created choir begins chanting and David Gahan pleads, “Never let me down.” Martin Gore joins in over him, repeating “See the stars, they're shining bright/Everything's all right tonight.”
The vocals slowly fade away, as does the music shortly thereafter, leaving a sound of lifting off into space. A temporary loss of consciousness or a soul moving onto the next plane? This is quite possibly the greatest song in their catalog.
Other songs leave the object of affection undefined, allowing the music to be for different types of Masses. “Behind the Wheel” is about putting someone or something in control. The narrator would “rather not be/The one behind the wheel.” It has a great driving synth line that provides the rhythm for the rest of the music to be built around. “To Have and To Hold” is a line from wedding vows, but a marriage to what? The narrator admits to flirting “With all kinds of dirt/To the point of disease,” and now wants “release/From all this decay.” Yet again, many things can fill that void. “Sacred” is right up front as a missionary sells “the story/Of love’s eternal glory.”
“The Things You Said” is about a damaged relationship due to a betrayal of confidence. Normally reserved for teenage years, but there’s no age cut-off for hurt feelings resulting from duplicity. The narrator discovers the error in giving out trust in this instance. “I thought we had something precious/Now I know what it’s worth.” The keyboards have a music box fragility that captures the delicate pliability of intimacy.
“Strangelove,” the first hit off the album, echoes the theme from “Master and Servant,” combining the pleasure/pain struggle with hints of sadomasochism. The narrator asks, “Will you take the pain/I will give to you/Again and again/And will you return it.” Yet, he’s very upfront about fulfilling his own needs. “I give in to sin” and “There’ll be days/When I stray.”
The accompanying DVD offers the music in PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and DTS 5.1. It also includes the B-sides for all three singles, such as their take on the classic “Route 66” and Beethoven’s "Sonata No. 14 in C#M" performed by Alan Wilder, and four 5.1 remixes.
A great extra and a must-have for fans is the 37-minute short film, “Depeche Mode: 1987-88 (Sometimes You Do Need Some New Jokes)” that examines this period in the band’s history. Recent interviews with the band and their team reveal what went into the creation of this album, from the plans to the happy accidents. They also discuss the subsequent tour that followed, the final night of which was captured by D.A. Pennebaker in the film 101.