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Black Celebration - Depeche Mode At Their 80's Finest
Black Celebration - Depeche Mode
Member Name: Hishyeness
Black Celebration - Depeche Mode
Date: 29/05/09, updated on 29/05/09 (146 review reads)
Advantages: A darker, more mature effort than their previous work.
Disadvantages: A couple of less impressive tracks.
Ah. How do I start? How do I review an album that has served as the musical cornerstone of my life? How do I take a step back, and untangle the music and lyrics so intimately embedded in my every sinew, or the chords and melodies that beat in time with my heart?
This album - Black Celebration - is my musical soul - as part of me as anything physical - at times dark and brooding, at other times hopelessly romantic and positive. How indeed do I do this and still stay impartial and objective?
The answer is that I can't. Not really. It's like trying to find fault with a favourite child. Your eyes light up at anything that makes you proud - no matter how minor, and your tendency is to gloss over the less desirable attributes, and dismiss them as nothing to worry about.
Now that you've been warned, and given some context, I feel I can proceed with rose-tinted spectacles, safe in the knowledge that as educated and enlightened readers, you are thoroughly capable of judging how big of a pinch of salt to take with this review.
Depeche Mode (DM) are one of those seminal and influential bands that have endured despite the rise (and fall) of many imitators, music trends and one hit wonders. In fact, the band, in its current form - David Gahan, Martin Gore and Andrew Fletcher - have been around for most of my adult life. It's hard to believe that November 2011 will see the thirtieth anniversary of their debut album - Speak and Spell - which was released in 1981.
For me, lyrical depth and meaning in songs are as just important as melody. To use an analogy - looks are what attract you, but personality is what keeps you interested. DM have spoken to me and my life experiences more than any other band - not literally it should be said - as unlike David Gahan (the front man) and Martin Gore (the main songwriter until recently) - I haven't dallied with drugs or alcohol, diced with death, or lived the rock n' roll lifestyle (nor would I care to). It's the wider appeal of their lyrics and compositions that, in my view, makes them so accessible.
Their enduring appeal and timeless lyrics (they sang, in 1983 "The grabbing hands, grab all they can, everything counts in large amounts" in reference to corporate greed - eerily relevant in today's austere climate) have ensured a massive following in America, Scandinavia, Europe and the Far East.
That said, it's a quirk of their universal, global appeal that they have always done better outside the UK than within it, and as such, here in England, they are still to achieve the respect and recognition they have enjoyed abroad. In stark contrast to their "arena" band status here in England, in many parts of the world these guys still sell out whole stadia.
BLACK CELEBRATION - OVERVIEW
Black Celebration, was released in the UK on the Mute label in March 1986. This was their fifth studio album, and it signalled their graduation from purveyors of slightly cheesy, poppy electronica to a darker, fuller, more complex and gothic sound. The original album is available from most e-tailers for around £8.00 but you can pick up a good second hand copy from eBay for much less.
This "standard" version is the subject of this review. There is a minor difference in the US and UK releases. There is an extra track called "But Not Tonight" on the US version, which is a very upbeat number that probably added to lighten the mood a bit - we all know how much the Americans love a Hollywood ending. 8^)
In 2007, almost 20 years to the day from the original album release, DM announced a re-mastered Collectors Edition of the album, with the original track listing on the CD, but with a bonus DVD chock full of goodies. These include a short film, the complete album repeated in DTS 5.1 Surround Sound, three live tracks from their 1986 tour date in Birmingham, and eight additional tracks, as well as new fold-out packaging, artwork and inserts. Unfortunately, this excellent version of the album is currently out of stock at most e-tailers, with no news as to when it will be available again.
THE STANDOUT SONGS
I have decided not to do a track by track review, but have, instead picked out my standout tracks. The full album listing is set out later below.
+ Black Celebration
The title track is the first song on the album, and starts with a lengthy intro of synths, overlaid with various industrial goings-on in the background, before Dave Gahan plaintively croons the opening lines. Shortly after, a pounding, insistent beat kicks in and takes the song to another level. Martin Gore's slightly higher pitched voice adds an ethereal quality to the chorus and backing vocals, which get more and more insistent throughout, as Gahan pleads for sympathy and forgiveness from the listener, demanding her to "take me in your arms, forgetting all I couldn't do today."
+ A Question of Lust
This is one of my all-time favourite DM songs. It's a haunting, delicate paen to the frailty of relationships, love and lust. From the opening statement "Fragile, like a baby in your arms, be gentle with me, I'd never willingly do you harm" to the urgent chorus "It's a question of lust, it's a question of trust, it's a question of not letting what we've built up crumble to dust" - this is a lyrical, melodical and technical tour de force that plucks on the heartstrings with the intensity of a slightly deranged harpist. One of their very best.
+ A Question of Time
In contrast to the other "Question" on this album, this track is a bit of a bulldozer. From an unassuming beginning akin to a clarion call, the driving bass and drum kick in like a supercharger on a souped up Chevy. The song is addressed to a young person - I usually assume it must be a girl - warning of corruption, deceit and the danger of being led astray "I can see them now, hanging around to mess you up to strip you down, and have their fun, with my little one". It's an ever so slightly sleazy track, which gives you an uneasy feeling that the narrator may not be all that he seems, especially when he confides that "I know my kind, what goes on in our minds".
Without doubt the most industrial sounding and anthemic of the songs on this album. It has a catchy, pounding beat with so much going on it begs several listens to get through the layered complexity of its arrangements. Gahan's vocal's are superb, adding real depth of emotion to an already well textured composition.
The theme this time is materialism, the sway technology and external media have on our decision making and their effect on the quality of our lives. This is made clear, in my view, by the chorus "Let me see you stripped down to the bone. Let me see you make decisions without your televisions, let me hear you speaking just for me." The band's extensive use of sampling every day sounds is really evident here, with the motor sounds starting up at the start of the track being sampled from a motorcycle.
+ Here is the House (HITH)
Stripped goes straight into HITH, the link being the clever use of a ticking clock. This is an altogether more positive and upbeat track, and probably the lightest on the album. It's a personal favourite of mine, with lyrics I can relate to, such as "And I feel your warmth and it feels like home...let's stay home its cold outside, and I have so much to confide to you - with or without words, I'll confide everything...".
On the surface this seems like a straightforward ballad - an ode to love and comfort if you would - but DM are never that obvious. Although it works as such, there is to me - an undercurrent of regret and a tinge of sadness that's more evident in the musical arrangement than in the lyrics. An under-rated classic.
+ New Dress
It's not exactly a musical masterpiece, but I really like this song for the political statement it makes about the priorities and influence of the media back in the 80's - which is a theme as relevant today as it was when "Princess Di [was] wearing a new dress". Here's a taster "In black townships, fires rage, prospects better, Premier says, Princess Di is wearing a new dress". By concentrating on the frivolities, we can conveniently forget the bigger issues of the day, which, in most cases we don't have the stomach to deal with because they are "too big" or "too depressing".
The best part is the chorus, which warns of what happens when we allow newspapers and politicians to spin the truth and shape our perception of the world - "You can't change the world, but you can change the facts, and when you change the facts, you change points of view, if you change points of view you may change a vote, and when you change a vote, you may change the world".
FULL TRACK LISTING
1 Black Celebration (4:57)
2 Fly On The Windscreen (5:19)
3 A Question Of Lust (4:23)
4 Sometimes (1:54)
5 It Doesn't Matter Two (2:51)
6 A Question Of Time (4:09)
7 Stripped (4:17)
8 Here Is The House (4:16)
9 World Full Of Nothing (2:49)
10 Dressed In Black (2:34)
11 New Dress (3:46)
This album is quite rightly a fan favourite, and the songs have endured and dated quite well since their release 20 years ago. Question of Lust, Question of Time and Stripped are staples of DM's tour set lists an are as well received now as they were back then.
There is a lot of meat in this album, but there are one or two fillers that, relatively speaking, let the side down a bit. Weakest amongst these are the minimalist Martin Gore fronted track "World Full of Nothing" and the lilting, meandering, and perhaps a little bland "Dressed in Black" - but that's probably me being hypercritical in the name of objectivity.
Many of the songs have no definitive ending and often segue into the next one, so the album, with its modest running time of around 50 minutes, rewards a single sit-down listen, rather than dipping in and out of single tracks. It is a rich, textured and complex album that rewards repeated exposure, and in this fan's view - amongst the finest in DM's extensive back catalogue.
© Hishyeness 2009 - some parts of this review (particularly the background of the band) have been reworked from my ciao.co.uk review of the new DM "Sounds of the Universe" album.
Summary: Quite rightly a fan's favourite, this is a must buy for any budding fan.