The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

“Where Heaven Waits” – A Beginner’s Guide to Depeche Mode

Speak And Spell (1981)

Depeche Mode’s debut is an interesting one to revisit in the context of virtually everything they’ve done since. It’s hard to believe that a shiny happy latter-day terrace chant like ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ is by the same band that did ‘Walking In My Shoes’ or ‘Barrel Of A Gun’. But Speak And Spell dates from a time when Vince Clarke, a man with a completely different vision for pop music than the one for which Depeche Mode would later become associated, was the group’s primary creative force. It has its charms – the unsullied innocence of ‘New Life’ and the alluring ‘Photographic’ being the best moments – but it’s fundamentally a bit lightweight (6/10) (LISTEN)

A Broken Frame (1982)

With Clarke departed, Depeche Mode weren’t rudderless for long. Martin Gore assumed control of the group’s songwriting and, having quickly found chart success with ‘See You’, set about recorded the interesting but flawed A Broken Frame. It’s much more ambitious in structural terms than the pure pop approach of their debut, with the likes of ‘Monument’ taking dub/reggae turns and beautifully ruminative moments like ‘My Secret Garden’ and ‘Leave In Silence’ making this a surprising if uneven collection. It sounds hesitant and understated, perhaps unsurprisingly, but A Broken Frame represents the real start of Depeche Mode’s story in many ways, and the beginning of a long upward climb. (6/10) (LISTEN)

Construction Time Again (1983)

With the arrangement genius of Alan Wilder now fully integrated into the band, Depeche Mode’s artistry began its course of evolution to what we recognise it today. Construction Time Again, in a handful of places, shows a level of experimentalism that was much bolder than most of their chart-populating contemporaries, sampling the noises of household objects being struck on the likes of ‘Pipeline’, inspired by industrial music pioneers like Einstürzende Neubauten. But this didn’t blunten Gore and Wilder’s pop nous, as fine singles like ‘Everything Counts’ and ‘Love, In Itself’ showing a new grandeur. (7/10) (LISTEN)

Some Great Reward (1984)

A fertile period of four studio albums in as many years culminated in Some Great Reward, which represented a further widening and deepening of Depeche Mode’s sound. The full-on industrial pop banger ‘Master And Servant’, conflating sexual relations with bourgeoisie-proletariat commentary, the anthemic ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ and the delicate vulnerability of ‘Somebody’ may be the headline grabbers and hit singles, but there are lesser known beauties like the understated ‘Lie To Me’ and the shimmering ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ to make it immersive throughout. It’s always tended to divide fans, as it’s essentially part of a bridge that connects two distinct eras of Depeche Mode, but for us, it’s one of the group’s most underrated albums. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Black Celebration (1986)

Change had come in refinements until this point, but with Black Celebration, Depeche Mode underwent the closest thing to a Great Leap Forwards in their artistry in their whole career to date. Everything about this album’s demeanour, from the glinting production to Dave Gahan’s greater vocal range and the performances he wrought from it, suggested a band hell-bent on pursuing a well-defined aesthetic. The aggressive, hard-nosed ‘A Question Of Time’ and the distorted vocal hook of the opening title track. Black Celebration’s ace cards, however, are the slower moments. The nihilistic ‘World Full Of Nothing’ and the dramatic tension of ‘Stripped’. A key moment in their history, this was the point at which many finally sat up and noticed Depeche Mode’s abilities. They were only just starting to fulfil that potential, however… (8/10) (LISTEN)

Music For The Masses (1987)

It’s a good thing that Depeche Mode were prepared to cash the cheque that their sixth album’s title wrote. Backed by an exhaustive world tour, during which they cracked the American market, Music For The Masses achieved a dream ticket by massively expanding their sound, making it more accessible to mainstream audiences, yet sacrificing none of their values or identity in the process. From the widescreen, vertiginous majesty of opener ‘Never Let Me Down Again’, their stadium-sized sound was now complete, and with other strong singles like ‘Strangelove’ and ‘Behind The Wheel’, Depeche Mode were now an unstoppable sonic force. Add to that the sheer oddity of the choral closer ‘Pimpf’ and the synthetically orchestrated drama of ‘Little 15’, and you had one of the strongest and most forward-thinking electronic music albums of the Eighties, as well as one of the most popular. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Violator (1990)

Realising they were onto a winning formula following their incredibly successful world tour, Depeche Mode effectively positioned their next album as Music For The Masses part two. However, they decided to let the songs emerge naturally from extended studio jams, rather than determining the sound beforehand in pre-production meetings as had been their previous method. The engineering and production assistance of Flood, coupled with Martin Gore’s finest songwriting and a brilliant creative foil in Alan Wilder, led to a serious of compelling mood pieces that, although reliant on technology, sounded utterly human. The mechanical blues groove of ‘Personal Jesus’ and the us-and-no-one-else poignance of ‘Enjoy The Silence’ powered this flawless collection, with introspective moments like ‘Waiting For The Night’ and ‘Sweetest Perfection’ being equally captivating. Violator represented the terminal point in a musical journey that had taken Depeche Mode most of a decade, which began with them being written off as also-rans but ended as undisputed overlords of dark electro-pop, and arguably the biggest band in the world. (10/10) (LISTEN)

Songs Of Faith And Devotion (1993)

There comes a point with massively successful career trajectories where the artist simply cannot continue to keep growing in the same direction – to sound any more massive, or to wring any more originality out of the same template without lurching into self-parody and stasis. Depeche Mode recognised this after the triumph of Violator, and made a subtle and largely successful shift by embracing the grunge and alternative rock revolutions that had happened in their absence, attempting to capture a more human performance. The guitar-driven juggernaut of lead single ‘I Feel You’ laid out their stall, and it resulted in some of the group’s finest performances to date, such as the self-justifying ‘Walking In My Shoes’ and the haunting ‘Judas’. A couple of tracks do have a tendency to drift and outstay their welcome, however – ‘In Your Room’ and ‘Higher Love’ certainly don’t need to be as long as they are – although their general weightiness is still enough to leave the listener at least impressed. While not as glorious as Violator, Songs… did just about manage to extend Depeche Mode’s golden streak, but not all was well within the unit. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Ultra (1997)

The decade that followed Violator saw Depeche Mode attempting to re-cast their dark electro-pop within a series of other musical sub-genres. Emerging after a period that saw the band nearly fall apart completely amid addiction and recriminations, plus the departure of critical member Alan Wilder, Ultra was much better than anybody could have expected. Working with British dance titan Tim Simenon (a.k.a. Bomb The Bass) on production, they embraced electronica and trip-hop rhythms, and sounded completely reborn and newly inspired in many places, notably the four fantastic singles. Dave Gahan had taken singing lessons, giving him a range and projection he’d hitherto never accessed. Subtler moments like ‘Sister Of Night’ and ‘The Love Thieves’ were a little harder to parse, focusing almost exclusively on texture. Virtually every track except the bridging interludes extends over five minutes, making this one of the most immersive and grandiose Depeche Mode albums. (7/10) (LISTEN)

Exciter (2001)

For their first album of the new millennium, Depeche Mode picked producer Mark Bell, one-time collaborator with Björk and part of Warp Records’ bleep techno pioneers LFO. It reflected their determination to keep experimenting with new sounds and styles, and to a large extent dialed back on the arena-shaking electropop that had made their name. Opener and lead single ‘Dream On’ sounded more like Radiohead, for instance, and Bell’s quicksilver arrangements and crisp, minimalist beats transformed Martin Gore’s writing in strange new directions such as the gentle ‘When The Body Speaks’ and the dessicated, beautiful ‘Freelove’. Elsewhere, the raging house piledriver ‘I Feel Loved’ and the quaking ‘The Dead Of Night’ fit slightly more into the mould that established DM fans loved. Exciter is arguably the greatest outlier in Depeche Mode’s whole discography, and certainly the most divisive. Not every idea works, for sure, but those that do are truly striking. (7/10) (LISTEN)

Playing The Angel (2005)

After the forays into different territories marked by their last three studio albums, Playing The Angel marked a return to a more classic Depeche Mode sound. Heralded with the straightforward forcefulness of ‘A Pain That I’m Used To’, it’s a tour-de-force of the kind of arena-slaying electropop that had once made them the biggest band in the world, and fans and critics welcomed it as the best DM album since Violator. A bit much, maybe, as it’s nowhere near as economical or consistent, but Playing The Angel was definitely highly enjoyable throughout. Gahan’s impressive songwriting ‘Suffer Well’, Gore’s intensely personal ‘Precious’ and the cult club hit ‘Lilian’ all stand out. A great place for a newcomer to begin exploring Depeche Mode. (7/10) (LISTEN)

Sounds Of The Universe (2009)

As much as it pleased their fanbase, Playing The Angel signaled the start of Depeche Mode’s current era of playing for keeps over territorial expansion after a quarter of a century. Retaining the services of Ben Hillier on production, their 12th album saw the band embrace and recast a lot of their career highlights – ‘Peace’ and ‘Fragile Tension’ recalled their early Eighties pop-industrial phase, and ‘Perfect’ even nodded to the days when Vince Clarke was still in the band – but Sounds Of The Universe is ultimately too long and too front-loaded to be consistently one of their best efforts. Obviously, they were still capable of inspiration, as the epic stadium-synth opener ‘In Chains’ and the understated ‘Jezebel’ proved, but in places it registers more as an act of stubbornness, existing because it can rather than because it must. (6/10) (LISTEN)

Delta Machine (2013)

The long tail of Depeche Mode’s career continued with Delta Machine, which both now and at the time scanned as the weakest album of their career. The problem was not that it was bad – in places, the gothic gloom is extremely beautiful – but that it was basically an almost entirely unexceptional tread through territory that Depeche Mode had explored many times already. For a band whose reputation was for so long built on embracing the future, it was beyond disappointing to hear this pretty but largely interchangeable sequence of moody, mid-paced electronic rockers and ballads. ‘Soft Touch/Raw Nerve’ and ‘Soothe My Soul’ picked things up at the back end of the tracklisting in terms of variation, but they arrive too late to save an unremarkable collection. (5/10) (LISTEN)

Spirit (2017)

Perhaps recognising the need for change after the indifferent reception for Delta Machine, Gore, Gahan and Fletcher secured the services of former Arctic Monkeys producer James Ford for their 14th studio album. Fuelled by frustration at the public political discourse of anger, fake news and disregard of experts that led to Brexit and Trump, Spirit was a focussed collection whose socially conscious but ultimately deeply human lyrics and bleak instrumentals made ita cut above most albums that are the results of long-established bands going woke. Among the highlights were the elegiac ‘Going Backwards’, the barely disguised rage of ‘Scum’ and the dolorous ‘The Worst Crime’. This shift from the personal to the political was mirrored with Ford’s work behind the desk, as he stripped back the overproductions of Delta Machine and amped up the remaining elements. While its punches didn’t always connect, Spirit showed there was plenty of life left in Depeche Mode, even as they approach their fourth decade. (6/10) (LISTEN)

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