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Electronica, rock

Memento Mori

Depeche Mode
Depeche Mode: Memento Mori
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Depeche Mode frontman, Dave Gahan, once said of his bandmate, chief songwriter, Martin Gore, that he only ever pens lyrics about three subjects: death, pain and suffering.

Death hangs over this record – their fifteenth studio album – more so than ever, because it’s the first one the group, now a duo, have made without fellow member, Andy ‘Fletch’ Fletcher, who died in 2022. The title, Memento Mori, is a Latin phrase meaning ‘Remember you must die,’ but, ironically, the album was named and written before Fletcher’s passing.

Depeche Mode reunited with producer, James Ford, who was at the controls for 2017’s Spirit, which was the band’s most political record, but suffered from a lack of great and memorable songs.

The 12-track Memento Mori brings with it a sadness due to the circumstances in which it was made, but the good news is that it’s mostly a return to form – in fact, it’s the best album Depeche Mode have made since 1997’s brilliant and underrated Ultra, which was created in the wake of Gahan’s near-fatal drug overdose.

It isn’t a perfect record – the first half is stronger than the second and some of the songs, like the chugging ‘Always You’ and the dizzying ‘Never Let Me Go’, need repeated listening to sink in. Memento Mori would be a stronger album without them.

Opener, ‘My Cosmos Is Mine’, is a brilliant scene setter – creating a foreboding and unsettling atmosphere with its pulsing electronics and spacey synths. Choral-like backing vocals lend it a gothic sci-fi soundtrack feel, and co-producer and engineer, Marta Salogni, has processed Gahan’s and Gore’s vocals through lots of tape, creating otherworldly and psychedelic backwards effects.

‘Wagging Tongue’ – “Watch another angel die” – is a Gore and Gahan co-write. Based on a hypnotic, Kraftwerkesque keyboard part, it sounds a bit like Nick Cave doing Yazoo.

First single, the sublime pop of ‘Ghosts Again’, one of four songs Gore has written with Richard Butler of The Psychedelic Furs, manages to be both melancholy and uplifting at the same time.

Built on a trademark Gore guitar hook, it evokes the band’s classic 1990 hit ‘Enjoy The Silence’, as well as the Pet Shop Boys circa Behaviour and New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle.’

‘Don’t Say You Love Me’, another Gore and Butler composition, is wonderful – a dramatic and doomy Scott Walker-style torch song (“You’ll be the killer, I’ll be the corpse”) with James Bond strings and a great vocal performance by Gahan.

The shadowy and throbbing ‘My Favourite Stranger’ occupies more familiar Depeche Mode territory – it’s a jarring electro-industrial track, with squelchy synths and some, occasionally, irritating and upsetting squally sounds, but ‘Soul With Me’ offers some solace – a gorgeous and histrionic, Gore-sung ballad with an angelic arrangement and a touch of smooth ‘80s pop.

The oddly-titled ‘Caroline’s Monkey’, which references drug addiction – “Caroline’s monkey claws at her back, colder than winter, darker than black” – has a weird, mutated disco groove that is strangely reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’.

The final song, ‘Speak To Me’, is an epic interstellar ballad that also touches on narcotics in its lyrics. It sounds like Gahan is addressing the dark times in his past when he sings: “I heard you call my name, lying on the bathroom floor – no one here to blame.”

This is a great-sounding and intriguing album, with some inventive production techniques (some of which are very old indeed) that manages to immerse the listener in warm sonics, but also adds a disturbing edge to some of the songs.

Memento Mori isn’t up there with the band’s crowning glory, 1990’s Violator, and it may be overshadowed by the death of Fletcher, but it’s great to have a Depeche Mode record which sounds like it’s got some new life in it.

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