Depeche Mode – ‘Memento Mori’ Album Review

Photo Credit: Anton Corbijn

In music journalism, there’s a concept known as the five-album-test: any band that has released five consecutively great albums passes. The test is imperfect and controversial – rewarding consistency over irregular bursts of excellence – but the bands who pass it, undeniably, belong to the very highest echelons of music. Most would agree that English electronic outfit Depeche Mode is part of the elite tier of bands who pass the test – with an acclaimed six-album run that spanned 1984’s Some Great Reward to 1997’s Ultra, and includes the Platinum-certified Violator

In the decades since, the band has struggled to replicate both the commercial and critical success of that fruitful artistic period, but already many are declaring their fifteenth album, Memento Mori, a return to form. Recorded shortly after the sudden death of keyboard player Andy Fletcher, Memento Mori is an album preoccupied with death. The music moves at a slow, even glacial, pace, yet the lyrics often rumble with anxiety about mortality and the passage of time – perhaps a reflection of the axiom that life is both unbearably long and terrifyingly short. “Thoughtless thoughts, my friends // We know we’ll be ghosts again,” declares Dave Gahan in what stands out as a particularly heavy moment on an album filled with heavy moments. 

Certainly, Memento Mori is an accomplished album – a technically spotless effort from two musical geniuses, all revolving around a captivating concept. But the music often feels rigid and impenetrable in a way that will make the album a challenging project for anyone who isn’t a die-hard fan. There is nothing as melodic as “Personal Jesus” on here for listeners to latch onto, and amidst all the brooding but rarely building synths, the tracks often blur into one another. To listen to Memento Mori in its entirety is often to feel as though time is collapsing in on itself, if not stopping entirely. That may offer an intriguing prospect to some, but I suspect it’s a tougher sell for many more.

The band, to their credit, still sounds quite unlike anyone else, but in Depeche Mode’s attempts to create a dark and morbid treatise, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to artists who have done so more successfully. The slow and suspenseful opener, “My Cosmos Is Mine” would be a fine introduction if the band used the successive 11 tracks to build on its arrangements, rather than merely replicate them. But in isolation, it’s a non-starter, with cries of “don’t play with my world” registering as empty threats and vague posturing. Listening to it, I can’t help but think of another ’90s electronic band, Portishead – who previously remixed the band’s “In Your Room” – and how much more effectively they did what Depeche Mode is trying to do here. Elsewhere, the band’s reflections on mortality on “Ghosts Again” recall the late-2010s work of Nick Cave, but the lyrics lack the first-person intimacy that makes Cave’s best music so powerful.

What hampers Memento Mori the most is a suffocating sense of self-seriousness. It’s an understandable tendency when dealing with personal tragedy to want to create a deep, meaningful, and authoritative musical document in the face of trauma. But in the album’s worst moments, attempts at depth read as forced – particularly in lines like “You anesthetic // I’ll be the scream” and “I’ll be the corpse // You’ll be the laughter.” Elsewhere, third-person narratives (like on “Caroline’s Monkey”) only further the distance between listener and artist. 

When the band relaxes, moments of genuine beauty and vulnerability reveal themselves. Amidst the vague posturing of “Wagging Tongue” lies a staggering admission of frailty: “Everything seems hollow // When you watch another angel die.” On the best song here, “Soul With Me,” Martin Gore subtly pushes his voice beyond his comfort zone, as he cries, “I am going where there are no cares // And I’m taking my soul with me.” It turns out that when the band allows themselves to be vulnerable, without worrying about the perceptions of the outside world, they create some of their most powerful music yet.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Written by: Tom Williams

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