In May 2022, Andy Fletcher — the keyboard player and one of the founding members of the prestigious British synth-pop/electronic rock group Depeche Mode — passed away after a tragic battle with aortic dissection, leaving the remaining duo of Dave Gahan and Martin Gore in deep shock and overwhelming grief. The last time the trio got together to record a studio album was in 2017, resulting in Spirit, the final record Depeche Mode released in their famous trio format. Fortunately perhaps, Fletcher’s saddening death didn’t stop Gahan and Gore’s artistic collaboration, thus giving birth to Depeche Mode’s 15th studio record, Memento Mori, an album filled — as its title explicitly suggests — with the memory and experience of Fletcher’s passing. Opening with “My Cosmos Is Mine,” the duo quickly form and manifest the unique sonic universe of Memento Mori. While the outfit’s usual characteristics — Gahan’s distinctive and dramatic baritone vocals; Gore’s gradual, multilayered compositions — are vividly at play here, “My Cosmos Is Mine” easily exhibits a distinct aura of its own that encompasses the entire album from beginning to end. Deeper, darker, and possibly more pensive than ever, Memento Mori finds a seamless balance between confrontational expression and introspective impression, empowered by an individualistic motivation and confidence that’s no stranger to the group’s artistic work for roughly five decades: “Don’t play with my world / Don’t mess with my mind / Don’t question my spacetime / My cosmos is mine”.
The fact that all of Memento Mori’s tracks exceed four minutes evinces a level of precision and purism, with Gore and Gahan handling everything from free-flowing songwriting to incisive musicianship and passionate vocals. While embracing the familiar sound and style of Depeche Mode, the duo are not averse to (re-)articulation and innovation. Be it an ‘80’s retro-reverberating ditty like “Wagging Tongue” (which tackles the notions of personal liberation and self-reliance: “You won’t do well to silence me / With your words or wagging tongue / With your long tall tales to sorrow / Your song and to be sung / I won’t be offended”) or the outstanding banger of the album, “Ghosts Again” (proving how Depeche Mode is still capable of coming up with an instant eargasmic, slow-burn megahit), the collaborative spirit of Gore and Gahan’s work appears to be a result of sensorial, sonic architecture, simultaneously indicating the extent of Memento Mori’s delicately taut compositions, its integrity and chemistry while immersing in a seraphically posthumous atmosphere, filled with philosophically cosmological reveries (“Heaven’s dreaming / Thoughtless thoughts, my friends / We know we’ll be ghosts again”).Indeed, Memento Mori is both aesthetically and conceptually shaped by ecstatic verve and relaxed fluidity, organically synthesizing its catchy melodies with Depeche Mode’s constant experimentalism. After all, this is an album that seems (like its cover artwork) minimalistic, yet meticulously sketched with various degrees of light and shade, effectively interweaving its pieces with spiritual sublimity and intellectual elevation. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that after the hauntingly beautiful (anti-)love ballad, “Don’t Say You Love Me” (“You’ll be the killer / I’ll be the corpse / You’ll be the thriller / And I’ll be the drama, of course”), we’re confronted with the industrial/new-way/Bauhaus-y disco hit “My Favourite Stranger,” which epitomizes the album’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde quality: “My favorite stranger stands in my mirror / Puts words in my mouth / All broke and bitter.” Yet, as Gahan’s clear-cut baritone crooning is, as usual, responsible for providing an expressive personality alongside Gore’s juxtapositions of electronic bits, electric guitar riffs, magnificent keyboard interludes, and string orchestrations and arrangements, Gore’s languid tenor once again emphasizes the essential light-versus-dark motif in “Soul With Me,” the record’s centerpiece, which might give the listener a feeling of gradual spiritual transcendence: “I’m ready for the final pages / Kiss goodbye to all my earthly cages / I’m climbing up the golden stairs / Go sing it from the highest tower / From the morning / Till the midnight hour.”
The same charcoal chiaroscuro of sound fills the second half of Memento Mori, the duo of Gahan and Gore never ceasing to experiment and extend the boundaries of their musicianship. This is especially evident with the surreal poetry of “Caroline’s Monkey,” which suggests some inspiration from ‘70s Pink Floyd and the abstractions present in a lot of German Krautrock: “Caroline’s monkey coos in her ear / Drives like a demon / Through Caroline’s tears.” Another song, “Before We Drown,” provides an implicit counterpoint to the earlier “Soul With Me”; instead of reaching for the sublime, though, it submerges the listener in the innermost depths of a darker reflection: “First we stand up, then we fall down / We have to move forward before we drown”. “People Are Good,” meanwhile, splits the difference between those two tones with a mildly dissonant, heavier-sounding New Wave techno song that also tries to remain optimistic about mankind: “Keep reminding myself / That people are good / And when they do bad things / They’re just hurting inside.” But it’s the last three songs on Memento Mori that manifest some of the album’s most emotionally powerful moments. On the romantically heart-wrenching “Always You,” Gahan’s vocals trend toward his falsetto range, singing, “And then there’s you / There’s always you / The light that leads me from the darkness,” aided by some of Gore’s dreamiest, trippiest keyboard accompaniment. “Never Let Me Go” aims to please the group’s hardcore fans, throwing back to the BDSM style and ambiance of an ‘80s underground industrial/goth club, while the symphonic closer “Speak to Me” conjures a perfect serenity through the unison of an elevating lightness and absorbing darkness, speaking to each other and arriving at a new meaning of faith. With Memento Mori, Depeche Mode have not only once again crafted their music at a high level and in a style that somehow feels outside of space and time, but this new and tragically diminished incarnation of the band has also made one of their best and most personal albums in the process.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 13.