Depeche Mode

Reprise, 1997


REVIEW BY: Michael R. Smith


The early ‘90s weren’t good for most people, and for Depeche Mode it was a living hell. The wild success of their Violator and Songs Of Faith And Devotion albums brought with it a number of pitfalls, with drug addiction being the most serous. After experiencing a scary world tour in 1994, Alan Wilder decided to leave the band entirely. Martin A. Gore and Andrew Fletcher knew they had a monster on their hands that they needed to beat into submission, namely lead singer Dave Gahan. Totally strung out on every drug he could get his hands on, Gahan was becoming a danger to himself and others. After a botched suicide attempt, he was faced with the arduous task of rehabilitation. Only with a clean bill of health would he be permitted to rejoin his band-mates in the studio to record their ninth album, 1997’s my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Ultra.

As it turns out, changing his unhealthy ways certainly paid off -- Ultra was perhaps the best Depeche Mode album since 1987’s breakthrough, Music For The Masses. The problem was in how the album was received by most critics and fans, who undoubtedly had grown weary of Dave Gahan’s tabloid antics. Despite the chilly response and Wilder’s departure, Ultra returns the band to familiar sonic territory. The singles are distinctive as ever, though they didn’t exactly set the music charts on fire. Seeing David Gahan on The Tonight Show looking and sounding better than ever as he performed “It’s No Good” was all I needed to give this record its due credit. Somewhat interesting is the fact that Martin wrote all the songs, especially considering how personal and autobiographical some of them were when it came to Gahan’s recovery (like the aptly titled “Bullet Of A Gun”). Even if they aren’t his words exactly, Dave makes them his own in the way he solidly delivers them. As strong as the writing is here, the singing is even more impressive. Martin does sing a couple of tracks himself, with “Home” and “The Bottom Line” standing out as some of his best work to date.

No Depeche Mode release would be complete without several “transition” passages or instrumental pieces that bridge certain parts of the album together. On Ultra, such links are placed in the middle portion. There’s “Uselink” that leads us into the hit single “Useless,” as well as “Jazz Thieves,” a reprise of the overlong “The Love Thieves.” Even though it is fairly obvious that producer Tim Simenon intended the focus to be on “The Love Thieves” and the ballad “Sister Of Night,” they remain the weakest tracks on the album. If anything, the last three songs are what really made me sit up when I first heard this album. There’s a rustic, country feel to “Freestate” that comes quite unexpectedly, while “Insight” resonates with the listener long after the disc has stopped playing. It’s going to be hard for Depeche Mode to top Ultra, an album that proves that there’s still a lot of life left in these music veterans yet.

Rating: B+

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© 2009 Michael R. Smith and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Reprise, and is used for informational purposes only.