Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Depeche Mode – Some Great Reward or a paltry return?

1984’s Some Great Reward signalled the moment, for the vast majority of critics and fans, at which Depeche Mode finally began to fulfil their undoubted potential. Whilst Speak and Spell, A Broken Frame and Construction Time Again had yielded several successful singles, they had yet to produce a sufficiently consistent album. Some Great Reward did just that, selling in excess of four million copies worldwide, whilst ‘People Are People’ became, at the time, the band’s highest-charting UK single. Its opening line “people are people so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully?” was clearly the perfect accompaniment to West German television coverage of the 1984 Olympics, which were boycotted by their Eastern neighbours, and helped the band achieve their first #1 in West Germany. People Are People was symptomatic of the album’s departure from its predecessors “synth-heavy Britpop” sound into “more socially relevant, and darker territory” by dealing with such issues as racism and exclusion, as well as questioning the sources of, and reasoning behind conflicts. It seems as though Depeche Mode had begun to wake up to the world in which they lived with 1983’s ‘Everything Counts’, which addressed corporate greed and corruption in the music industry, but Some Great Reward takes the process a step further. ‘Master and Servant’, despite its clear allusions to bedroom politics and BDSM, plus the use of whip and chain sounds that allegedly resulted in the song being banned by many radio stations in the United States, can be seen in a wider context as cutting social commentary. Lines such as “it’s a lot like life, this play between the sheets, with you on top and me underneath, forget all about equality” could refer to either the economic hegemony of the United States or the military occupation and domination of its satellites by the Soviet Union, both key issues and concerns at the time.

However it would be foolish to concentrate on the singles, which would involve ignoring, in the words of Ned Raggett, “some of Depeche Mode’s undisputed classics”. ‘Something To Do’ begins with a rapid, horror film-esque rhythm along with a “tinkling” piano in the background, repeatedly asking “is there something to do?” If the band were aiming to create a palpable sense of dread and panic with which to characterise the remainder of the album, they certainly managed it. The feeling of alienation and boredom fits very well into the 1980s backdrop of inner-city deprivation and faltering social cohesion, and along with the “low key pulse” of ‘Lie To Me’ is indicative of a band growing in confidence having fundamentally changed its focus and approach. ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ has a ethereal, dreamy quality combined with bizarrely child-like synths, and can be seen as Some Great Reward’s clearest take on a love story, albeit one combined with “a dark, intense, and spooky industrial sound.” ‘Stories of Old’ can be effectively described as “Duran Duran with added darkness and mysteriousness”, and is another display of the band’s exceptional and evolving musical ability. ‘Somebody’ is the album’s standout track, a gentle ballad, sung by Martin Gore, described as mixing “wit and emotion skilfully”. In many ways it is a typical ballad, with the deeply romantic lyrics longing for “somebody, who will put their arms around me, and kiss me tenderly”, however many speculate that Gore wrote and sung ‘Somebody’ in a tongue-in-cheek manner, thereby providing a wry observation of saccharine love songs. The final two lines, “"Things like this make me sick. In a case like this, I'll get away with it" certainly support such an assertion, and demonstrate Gore’s increasingly complex song-writing manner.

Penultimate track ‘If You Want’ begins in an almost hypnotic style, and continues as such by calling to the listener, “If you want to be with me, you can come with me if you want to”. Its murky yet sparkly rhythm again demonstrates Depeche Mode’s innovative juxtaposition of dark and light, and is Alan Wilder’s sole song-writing contribution to Some Great Reward. The album closes with ‘Blasphemous Rumours’, released alongside ‘Somebody’, which suffered the same fate as ‘Master and Servant’ by being banned from a number of American radio stations. This was due to its apparently anti-religious message, which was deemed offensive by many including the Church itself. However Dave Gahan has stated that the song was merely “a statement of how everybody must feel at one time or another” rather than being anti-religion. The chorus of “I don't want to start any blasphemous rumours, but I think that God's got a sick sense of humour, and when I die I expect to find him laughing” certainly doesn’t leave the listener in any doubt as to the song’s message, yet the fact that the band was able to approach such issues in this way illustrates its new-found confidence. It may have taken three years but Depeche Mode finally left the inoffensive synth-pop of ‘A Broken Frame’ behind, replacing it with bold, unrestrained social commentary and a willingness to push the musical, lyrical and topical boundaries. Some Great Reward is without a doubt “still one of the best electronic music albums yet recorded”, and its darkness and melancholy a testament to the age in which it was conceived.

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