Depeche Mode: Momento Mori [Album Review]

Depeche Mode
Momento Mori
Columbia Records [2023]

The Fire Note headphone approved

By all accounts, Depeche Mode were unlikely to make their 15th album, “Momento Mori.” Tensions between the band’s two creative voices, Martin Gore and Dave Gahan became so intense during the making of their 2017 release Spirit, that producer James Ford had to kick everyone else, including the duo’s primary buffer and peacemaker Andy Fletcher, out of the studio and act like a marriage counselor/mediator to bring the album home.

In 2019, Gahan had recorded a solo album of dramatic covers with his band the Soulsavers titled Imposter, which was released in November of 2021, leading to a few shows a month later in Europe, leaving him wondering if he’d even be making more music. 2020 had brought on the pandemic, and then Fletch died suddenly from an aortic dissection in his home so he was no longer around to hold the family together. Once they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame near the end of 2020, the future of Depeche Mode was uncertain at best.

According to an interview with the two remaining members in last Sunday’s New York Times, vocalist Gahan knew he wanted to record a new album with Depeche Mode the first time he heard Gore’s new song, “Ghosts Again.” Down to just the two of them, Momento Mori benefits from the return of producer Ford, who has also worked with Arctic Monkeys, Gorillaz, and Florence and the Machine, plus producer and engineer Marta Salogni, who’d worked previously with The xx and Glass Animals. Gore, who has never shied away from addressing the darker aspects of existence in his songs, has acknowledged that the way the world shutdown while the COVID virus filled emergency rooms over their capacity had a major impact on the music he wrote for the album, thus the Latin album title, Momento Mori, which is a warning to “remember you must die.”

The album opens with the slow ominous industrial pounding that introduces “My Cosmos Is Mine,” which immediately brought to mind the first time I saw Depeche Mode on the Violator tour in 1990—not the band actually but the opening act, Nitzer Ebb. I believe it was the first time I saw a hardcore industrial band play live, since I wouldn’t see Nine Inch Nails for a few months yet. The mix of grinding industrial noise and the primal pounding beat was impressive. And Depeche Mode has embraced a refined adaptation of those qualities over the years since, but here it functions to set the brooding vibe that flows throughout the album. The pleading chant that serves as a bridge of sorts, features both singers moving from “No war, no war…” to “no final breaths, no senseless deaths,” the title arguing for a higher consciousness, if the powers that be would only heed my request, and “don’t mess with my mind.”

Turns out that the song that convinced Gahan to stay the course, “Ghosts Again,” is co-written by Gore and Richard Butler, the lead singer of The Psychedelic Furs. Set to a throbbing beat and a solid guitar tone among the keyboard synths, the song’s slower melody works for Gahan’s voice, but you could certainly hear this being sung by Butler on a Furs album with only modest adjustments. The lyric lingers around the idea that lovers have an innate sense of being reunited at some point after death.

And there are three more songs that came from this songwriting partnership: “Don’t Say You Love Me,” an angry anti-love ballad, where it’s clear from the start that “you’ll be the killer/I’ll be the corpse.” It’s a song Gahan has said reminded him of Scott Walker, who’s later works leaned toward the experimental avant-garde, and was released on the 4AD label. “My Favorite Stranger,” another Gore/Butler composition returns to a more industrial vibe, and a faster, pounding beat and melodic structure that’s in line with past Depeche Mode works. The lyric suggests a psychotic personality split, that “leaves crime in my wake/and blood on my hands.” The fourth collaboration is “Caroline’s Monkey,” a song that appears to use an unusual metaphor for a woman living with addiction, while the musical backing on this track is perhaps the one place on Momento Mori that doesn’t seem to get where it wants to go.

Strangely enough, Gore’s song about a person stepping off the mortal coil, “Soul With Me,” sounds like a big, airy, old school ballad, which he sings like a crooner from a long passed era as soaring strings suggest the best of all possible outcomes as “I’m climbing up the golden stairs” to the afterlife. In “Always You,” we find Depeche Mode in a comfortable electro-pop groove, while the lyrics seeks to cope with a world where “there are no more facts,” and “insanity reigns,” but that the love of his life is “the light that leads me from the darkness,” and keeps him grounded. Then staying with that theme, in “Never Let Me Go,” the duo sing together they “will be beacons/shining so bright/like stars in the darkness/for lovers at night,” while the music trades off from a robust techno rhythm and an angular rock guitar riff.

Now back in 1984, Depeche Mode first real breakthrough electronic pop hit was “People Are People,” Gore’s song that encouraged greater acceptance of one another around issues of race and sexual orientation, but this time around, he’s trying to remind himself that “People Are Good.” The track has a sturdy, but sparse industrial beat, while Gahan sings to remind himself that the reason for so much bad behavior is that even though people are “all full of love/it’s just their patience gets tired.” So, in order to remember the goodness in people, and maybe that we should all strive to get along with each other, we have to “keep fooling yourself.”

For his part, Gahan has brought one song written with others to the party, “Before We Drown,” a solid song built around a strong rhythm track and a chorus of male voices that assure the inevitability that “we drown.” “Wagging Tongue” is co-written by Gahan and Gore, in a somewhat rare collaboration. It’s built on a familiar keyboard synth loop, with a solid melodic hook, but again tied to the dark idea that we “watch another angel die.” The duo has also come together with their two producers to deliver that closing twelfth track of the album, “Speak To Me,” a ballad drenched in swirling orchestrations, that builds around the song’s melody to a cacophonous racket at the end bringing us back to the industrial pounding beat that opened the record.

On this 15th album from the two remaining members of Depeche Mode, as the title suggests, at every turn there is a sign of death, an awareness of the inevitable end of each one of us. And still there is a “black celebration” that underlies all the gloom, a reminder that light and love are still around us to be found, and even the possibility of reunion gives one a sense of hope. Depeche Mode has never been afraid to speak to us of the abyss, but while refusing to live in denial of life’s grim, gloomy aspects, they’ve tended to throw a dance party there on the rim. And here on Momento Mori they do indeed invite us to remember our death is waiting out there for us, so we should take advantage of this moment to live truly and well. Evidently most of these songs were written prior to the sudden death of Fletch, but there is a sense of grief that lingers over these tracks. While some of their more recent albums have failed to convince that they were all in, this somber collection finds the band coming together and digging deeper, and the album is all the better for it.

“Ghosts Again” / “My Favorite Stranger” / “Never Let Me Go”

Pet Shop Boys / Elastica / The Postal Service

Spirit (2017)

Official Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Columbia Records

Brian Q. Newcomb

Leave a Comment