Depeche Mode have always battled with existentialism through Dave Gahan’s ominous baritone and gothic synths that blurred ecstasy and agony. But now, Memento Mori being their first album without longtime keyboardist Andy Fletcher (who died suddenly last year aged 60), their melancholy is etched with an added air of mourning.
Memento Mori is no late career reinvention for the pioneering Essex boys, but it will leave fans glad the band have continued to still hit the studio five decades and 15 albums later. The album actually began life before the passing of Fletcher in 2022, but the keyboard player didn’t record any material that remained on the finished piece.
Indeed, after Fletcher’s death, it would have been easy for Gahan and principal songwriter Martin Gore to part ways, given their working and personal relationship could be gently described as strained at the best of times. But the duo decided to push on and affirm that Depeche Mode still has value in 2023.
And they do because the band have never released a bad album. There has been a gentle glide downward in quality as they stick to the ghostly yet danceable formula that made them. But even as they reach their denouement, Depeche Mode remain Depeche Mode.
Nobody will ever mistake Gore for being a particularly elegant lyricist, and he still has a layman’s approach to wordplay. On the opener ‘My Cosmos is Mine’, there’s a blunt chant of “No war” over a demented electronic beat that thuds like boots towards conflict.
The song is basically an angrier, more avant-garde version of Delta Machine’s opening track ‘Welcome to My World’, but immediately you know you’re safe in the hands of Gahan and Gore; for this is the Depeche Mode you’ll always want, who have broadly kept to the same soundscape through their lifespan other than adding a rough and ragged edge in the 90’s off the back of Nine Inch Nails’ breakthrough.
Depeche Mode’s perpetual darkness swirls around the rest of the album. There’s the self-loathing of album closer ‘Speak to Me’, the yearning love of ‘Never Let Me Go’, and the staring-death-in-the-eye ‘Soul with Me’.
And yet there are flickers of light in the darkness. The lead single ‘Ghosts Again’ – written with Richard Butler of The Psychedelic Furs – is straightforward synth-rock, and the throwback ‘80s bounce is the closest Depeche Mode have come to anthemic in a very long time. It’s a straightforward, simple song, like something CHVRCHES would put out if one of the guys could sing and sees the band reminding themselves of their heyday.
The rest of Memento Mori doesn’t seem as interested in permeating the psyche. Not that songs such as ‘My Cosmos is Mine’ and ‘My Favourite Stranger’ aren’t good. They’re just not particularly memorable beyond the moment they’re being listened to.
The whole thing is much more consistent than their last album – 2017’s Spirit – but nothing on Memento Mori quite finds the haunting build of ‘Cover Me’. Instead, it’s 12 neatly assembled tracks – none terrible, none outstanding – to listen to in the dark with a hood up. In other words, it’s Depeche Mode.
“I’m ready for the final pages”, Gahan croons on the evocative ‘Soul with Me’, a bombastic ballad that leans into gospel, courtesy of its choir arrangement. They are a band that knows death too well. Gahan tried to kill himself in 1995 and overdosed on a cocktail of drugs less than a year later, and with the loss of Fletcher, the band lost the web that kept the other often rowing two together.
There’s despair here, the type of despair Gore has always written about and the type of despair Gahan’s voice was created to sing. Memento Mori isn’t a great or memorable record, but its sincerity is felt deeply.