With the bridge that ‘Fletch’ provided now absent, Dave Gahan and Martin Gore have realigned, uniting to preserve the legacy of the band and mark his memory
Loss can make or break a band. In the case of Depeche Mode, the unexpected death of keyboard player Andy Fletcher has forced their hands. Whereas before the cliffhanger was always, ‘Is this their last album?’, now the outlook is different. Ironically the future appears more secure than at any point in the last 20 years. With the bridge that ‘Fletch’ provided now absent, Dave Gahan and Martin Gore have realigned, uniting to preserve the legacy of the band and mark his memory.
The duo era begins with a touching album, much of which was written over lockdown, while ‘Fletch’ was still alive. The title, Memento Mori – meaning ‘remember death’ – is characteristically direct, addressing their loss before a note is even heard. The music follows suit as the dark emptiness of My Cosmos Is Mine spreads a cloud over proceedings. “Don’t stare at my soul,” warns Gahan. You might not like what you see, is the strong implication.
Yet Depeche Mode are very approachable this time around, finding renewed hope in the darkness. Gahan’s voice has smoothed a few of its serrated edges in that time, rediscovering soulful dignity. He is on fine form on the likes of Don’t Say You Love Me, a phrase recalling 1997’s It’s No Good. A poignant lament, it declares, “You be the killer, I’ll be the corpse, You be the laughter, I’ll be the punchline of course.”
Inevitably the pair’s lyrics will come under the microscope for signs of homage to ‘Fletch’. Wagging Tongue is the most obvious, its lasting motif given for Gahan to “watch another angel die”. Soul With Me links to another past song, Condemnation – but with its eye firmly on the departed. “I’m going where the angels fly,” Gahan croons. Emotions rise still further for Speak To Me, one of the most heartfelt songs Depeche Mode have yet penned. After dark beginnings a rising tide of atmospherics suggests much brighter days ahead. Gahan makes good the song, declaring, “I’m listening, I’m here now, I’m found.”
The production, from James Ford and Marta Salogni, is roomy at times, but never covers the music in unnecessary effects. Instead the songs have a restrained elegance that on occasion brings Kraftwerk to mind. This is heightened in the likes of Ghosts Again, one of four songwriting collaborations between Gore and The Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, where touching harmonies dovetail and synthesizer lines glint in the half light. Before We Drown, a collaboration led by Gahan, presents a relatively monotone melodic line that is elevated by majestic, almost symphonic lines.
These songs will work well when the band head out on tour later in 2023, especially the likes of My Favourite Stranger. Backed by a musical weather system, its thick cloud is pierced by the sun, light streaming through the middle of the darkness in Gahan’s voice. His singing may be more deliberate these days, but it tells stories of heightened wisdom and deliberation. People Are Good bears this out. Reassessing the thoughts (and music) of 1984 single People Are People, which sang quickly of how “you and I should get along so awkwardly”, Gahan now finds a way round the problem. “Sometimes they simply slip up, but it’s not what they meant,” he reasons charitably.
While much of Memento Mori is thoughtful, and some of it visits the dark side, there is a great deal of positivity underpinning Depeche Mode’s work as a duo. It is as though they intend to pay ‘Fletch’ the highest compliment, working things out in spite of him no longer being there. He would surely have been touched by the deep insights made here on an auspicious 15th album, one that reasserts Depeche Mode as one of our national musical treasures.