The naming of Depeche Mode’s latest record is key to understanding its scaffolding: Memento Mori roughly translates as “remember you must die”. Last May one of the founding members of the band, Andy Fletcher, died suddenly, throwing his fellow travellers Dave Gahan and Martin Gore into free fall. With Fletcher gone, they had to recalibrate. Death has a way of clarifying things, particularly the passage of time. Happily, theirs was well spent creating this record: Memento Mori is one of their best albums in 20 years.
Produced by James Ford and Marta Salogni, and with contributions from Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, the atmosphere is a dance between muscularity and looseness, and, while underpinned by a sense of grief, it is equally underpinned by a sense of urgency. Fletcher had in some ways been the intermediary between Gahan and Gore, particularly during the pair’s more acrimonious moments. Without him they had to develop a new dynamic, and in doing so they have honoured Fletcher in a way that he would surely be pleased with, because it is rooted in optimism.
That optimism is conveyed through wonderful and at times weird electropop. Ghosts Again is their best single in a long time, on the right side of nihilism (can there be a right side?); there is an acceptance that life can be tragic but also compelling and curious. The synth-led Wagging Tongue talks of watching “another angel die”. It is offset by the ballad Soul With Me, which reshapes grief into a sense that there is perhaps nothing to fear in ascending those “golden stairs”.
That’s the interesting thing about this record: the doomy industrial atmosphere is married to a delicate warmth. A track like My Cosmos Is Mine, with its duality and its glitchy loveliness, is a kind of mirror to the melancholy hymnal of Speak to Me, full of love and anger, as life so surely is.
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People Are Good is all nice beats and bass, and Never Let Me Go vibrates with a case of anxious guitars, which is met in sensibility by the heavy weather of Before We Drown. Don’t Say You Love Me sounds a little like Morrissey covering INXS.
[ Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore: ‘After Andy died, you start thinking, Do you tap into something when you write songs, or is there something supernatural that goes on?’ ]
Much like John Cale’s most recent record, Mercy, what impress here are the renewing fire and inventiveness. Gahan and Gore have shown that they can still find ways to stoke that fire, even in the absence of old friends and collaborators. But perhaps Fletcher knew this all along.