“I Love the 80s,” VH1 declared more than a decade ago, and what’s not to like? Eighties music was garishly supersized with big hair, big record sales, big padded shoulders, big bass sounds and a big willingness on the part of artists to wear just about anything to attract attention on that addictive new visual medium, MTV. England in particular exported a never-ending stream of novelty bands in a second British Invasion with a lifespan measured in nanoseconds. How many groups who broke through during that era have survived it as more than a nostalgic punch line?
Happily, the answer includes at least one: Depeche Mode, who are releasing their thirteenth studio album, Delta Machine, this month. I might have added big synths to that list above, and Depeche certainly made a mark with their punchy, upbeat electronic sound, which was as frothy as anything else on MTV. But over the years the band has slowed down its beats per minute, upped its thematic ambition and created a live show that has electrified audiences worldwide. Far from being a dismissible retro act, Depeche Mode is more contemporary than ever. It’s impossible to overstate their influence on electronic dance music, popular music’s formidable current trend. With Delta Machine, a seductive collection that retains the band’s appeal while trimming its excesses, Depeche Mode is poised to enhance their already larger-than-life stature. Indeed, after decades of success, this could be their true moment of greatness.
Electronic music was already being dismissed as a fad when Depeche Mode shot to superstardom. After forming in 1980, the group helped usher in the first wave of synth-crazy techno music. Revisiting the band’s clothes, haircuts and peppy hits, like “People Are People,” guarantees a nostalgic rush, but the music’s impact has lasted and grown. The band has evolved through a couple of permutations since the early days (the lineup has consisted of founding members Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher since 1995), all while racking up sales of more than 100 million albums and singles worldwide. In fact, Depeche Mode may well have been the first band to prove the now taken-for-granted notion that electronic dance rhythms translate across cultures more easily than most other musical forms, and they were able to create a truly global audience in the process.
How did this happen? Part of the answer is that Depeche Mode early on discovered the soul in the machine, in all senses of that term. On Delta Machine, the band incorporates R&B, blues and funk elements into its sound, a development that not only livens up the dance floor, but also combats the novelty aspects and seeming impersonality of electronic music. Even the new album’s title, with its nod to the Delta blues, speaks to this fusion. More explicitly, the band’s music refers to the state of our souls in a spiritual regard. “I was your father, your son, your holy ghost, your priest,” Gahan sings on the new song “Alone,” blending sacred and profane love in a way that recalls the deepest traditions of gospel and soul music. (Remember, this is the band that brought you “Personal Jesus.”) So many of the band’s songs have been, as the title of one of Depeche Mode’s most popular albums puts it, “songs of faith and devotion.”
That merger of lust and spiritual love runs in both directions. In the band’s haunting new single, “Heaven,” earthly love and our search for connection are imbued with an otherworldly quality. Finding your soul mate evokes the divine, but losing him or her condemns you to an inner hell. The dark, brooding quality that is such a signature of Depeche Mode’s sound is entirely alluring, even a little scary, an intimation that in every relationship involving love, everything else is also at stake. In the world of Depeche Mode, surrendering to love takes on a decided S&M quality in which pleasure and pain become indistinguishable and equally delicious.
The band’s music has always been presented in arrestingly dramatic terms, elevating Depeche into one of the most visually compelling bands in the world while shattering the notion that electronic music was one-dimensional. This is seen not only in their exultant live performances, but also in their videos, many of which were directed by photographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijn. Gahan has said that when he sings in the studio he imagines himself onstage, and his imagination becomes reality when the band plays in front of an audience.
He’ll get that opportunity again when Depeche Mode begin their world tour in Tel Aviv on May 7, and then travel throughout Europe until the end of July. A full North American tour will follow. More than three decades after their founding, Depeche Mode will once again be performing in arenas and stadiums full of orgiastic fans, their music, quite remarkably, more relevant than it has ever been.