Depeche Mode – “Memento Mori” review: The old magic in a new, black dress
Words by Jan Tracz
Angst meets hopelessness on Depeche Mode's poignant farewell to a dearest friend.
For the last forty years, Depeche Mode has been exhaustively working towards a major in gloomy melodies and heavy-hearted, lyrical contemplations. With Memento Mori, their newest album, the synth giants return to their dark intensities. The British triumvirate of electronic music (now a duo, but Fletcher’s spirit is somehow perceptible) proposes a collection of songs of faith and devotion to their lost friend.
It's a sorrowful elegy to Andy Fletcher, presumably their most important member who, sadly and suddenly, died a few months ago. In these circumstances, we can read it as a concept album: Memento Mori is a truly interesting musical substitute for some kind of a funeral banquet. During the post-burial party, the orchestra's music is rather familiar, but lyrically, it is a heartfelt soliloquy. Dave Gahan and Martin L. Gore share with us their insecurities: on Ghosts Again, we learn about a nihilistic take on their own end, while on Caroline’s Monkey, with noticeable irony, the musicians confront themselves with an addiction issue. In other words, the album is a manifestation of the band’s despair and an attempt to reconcile with the unexpected loss.
From the beginning, there is no place for any patience, which can be recalled from Welcome to My World, the opening song from the less-successful Delta Machine (2013). Gothic synthesizers pulsate atop and My Cosmos Is Mine reveals a dynamic (even distressing) tempo betrothed to the soothing anger in Dave Gahan's voice. Don't knock down my shrines/Don't alter my headlines/My cosmos is mine, Gahan expresses imperatively and indicates that, for the next fifty minutes, he wants us to listen and absorb the album’s aura. In the following songs, the band swings back to a few familiar territories: even on Soul with Me, we hear a few similar sounds to the ones from the previous records and there is still some well-known, sexual tension on the rapacious My Perfect Stranger.
For die-hards, it is another downbeat album, which requires more than only one-time listening. It takes some time to call this record "fresh", "redemptive" or "transformative". No wonder that for some people, Memento Mori is assuredly the band's most innovative record of this century. Besides, another element of surprise is the lack of typical synth-pop ballads – seemingly, none of the album’s songs is hummable (which, here, is not a downside) and there is an apparent affinity to the lyrical bitterness. On the melancholic Always You, Gahan decides on some vocal risks and extends his falsettos without any hesitation (There's always you/And then there’s you). Contrarily, on People Are Good, without further ado, he ironizes and defies his own dishonesty: Keep reminding myself/That people are good (…) Keep fooling myself/That everyone cares.
At the same time, Memento Mori smothers with its main theme, death and infirmity, but it also invites fans to travel through layers of Gahan’s and Gore’s grief. There is a sense of the band’s concentration to build the whole record on various nuances – after many listenings, their triumph is indisputable. Predictably, even the execution of the final track, Speak to Me, reminds us that Depeche Mode has always been the musical sovereign of ending recorded albums with class. Think back to Black Celebration’s (1986) addictive New Dress or Violator’s (1990) Clean, provoking with its elated melodies and lyrics; these songs were full of freeing sounds, which helped listeners “finish” their musical journeys.
Speak to me, in a language/That I can understand, Gahan almost quietly cries out and – metaphorically – awaits Fletcher’s spirit to reply by any means. This humble request seems to be a way of, finally, comprehending their friend’s irreversible passing. I will disappoint you/I will let you down/I need to know/You're here with me/Turn it all around: while scared of the nearest future’s decisions, Gahan and Gore believe that Fletcher has never truly left and will always support them. Speak to Me is both a mournful and a cathartic testament – it’s the finest mix of emotions that Depeche Mode’s song could ever have.
Memento Mori is a collection of relevant themes (echoing Ingmar Bergman’s death and Samuel Beckett’s solitude), although there are no aesthetic revelations. Yet, for an album seeking to ignite something within its listener, it possesses just enough spark to make us believe in Depeche Mode's electronic sound for one more time.