Depeche Mode: Spirit

March 19, 2017

“Oh, we’re fucked.”
–“Fail,” from Depeche Mode’s Spirit

It takes a lot to get Depeche Mode to write a political album. The band has never exactly done political. Yes, they have a handful of mildly political songs: “Everything Counts,” “People Are People,” and (some say) “Master and Servant” (but do you really believe that, when Martin Gore was going around in leather bondage gear at the time? Yes, it has the lyric, “In bed or in life, it’s all just the same,” but…). But songwriter Martin Gore* typically sticks to a few themes: lust (“Question of Lust”), love (“Somebody”), religious imagery (“Blasphemous Rumours,” “Judas”), more lust (“Lie to Me,” “Behind the Wheel”, “Stripped,” ), lust with religious imagery (“Personal Jesus,” “Black Celebration”), lust with a hint of S&M (“Master and Servant,” “Strangelove”), and the occasional dash of supposedly unintentional homoeroticism (“Never Let Me Down”).

And that is fine. Lust has been valid topic for songwriters throughout pop history, a rich vein to mine in all its permutations (which Gore has). Depeche Mode would not be the same without Gore’s particular take on sex and sexuality; had Vince Clarke never left, the band would be remembered for some catchy, singable synthpop. Pairing Gore’s lyrics with dark, layered synths, Depeche Mode honed a sound–and a legacy–apart from their synthpop peers.

That unique sound drew me into the music. I’ve been a Depeche Mode fan for roughly 27 years now, which puts my arrival as a fan between Music for the Masses and Violator. In retrospect, that pairing marks the band’s high point, the moment when Gore’s sex-tinged lyrics and Alan Wilder’s dense, layered synth melodies fused into something utterly appealing to a semi-goth (goth-adjacent? goth-esque?) tween. Since Wilder’s departure, the band’s sound shifted, becoming more atmospheric and less dance-oriented.

Spirit keeps that atmospheric sound, but Gore’s lyrics have turned political.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’m both a pop music scholar** and a Depeche Mode fan. My feelings about this album can’t be separated into neat, little segments, wherein the critic in me knows that the lyrics are lacking even if the fan in me recognizes that the spirit (no pun intended) is willing.

As a pop music scholar at the nexus of pop and politics, I see this shift on Spirit as a signal of things to come: We are fucked, I think (like Gore), if Depeche Mode has finally released a political album 36 years into their career. When bands as large as Depeche Mode, who lived through other times that demanded political action (They were flirting with homoerotic imagery during the height of the AIDS crisis, ffs), now suddenly pay attention, that alone offers a measure of the danger we are in.

Although Gore says he wrote most of the album before the election, the songs throughout the album speak to the need for change and the threats of the present moment. “Going Backwards” laments the detachment of observing modern warfare from afar. “Where’s the Revolution” laments the easy deception of the masses by people like Trump: “C’mon people, you’re letting me down.” “Worst Crime” laments that people are not doing anything: “Once there were solutions/now we have no excuses.” “Poorman” laments the inefficacy of trickle-down economics. “Fail” laments our failure at all of the above.

As a political album, Spirit doesn’t quite rouse the troops so much as express the despair and powerlessness that a lot of people feel, whether about Trump, or war in Syria, or Brexit, or the ill-treatment of immigrants by ICE, or extrajudicial killings of people of color by police. My initial reaction to this despair lacked charity: I got annoyed that Depeche Mode, all very rich dudes, would release an album chiding everyone else for not shaping a revolution to their needs. My second reaction was: I get it, Martin. I have felt this kind of despair and powerlessness at a fairly regular rate since November 8, and I don’t think it’s going to go away no matter how much money I send to good nonprofits, or how much I volunteer at Planned Parenthood, or how often I send letters, emails, and postcards to elected officials.

So, while Spirit may be the political album that expresses how I feel right now, I’m not sure it’s the one I need. It might have been the album I needed a few months ago–just like an album of sad songs does wonders to heal a breakup, an album about political despair would have made for some productive wallowing. But I can’t stay in my pocket of despair for eternity. I need to move on, and I’m not sure Spirit is the album to help me do that.

I will say one final thing for Spirit, though: At least it’s a clear, disavowing response to Richard Spencer, who called Depeche Mode the “official band of the alt-right.”

*The most political song the band has ever released was “The Landscape Is Changing” from Construction Time Again, written by Alan Wilder. As much as I love Alan Wilder and dearly miss his musical contributions, this song is a lyrical stinker.

**You can take the girl out of the academy, but you can’t take the academy out of the girl.

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