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Ultra: Depeche Mode Dump Their Emotional Baggage
Ultra - Depeche Mode
Member Name: Hishyeness
Ultra - Depeche Mode
Advantages: Some outstanding tracks
Disadvantages: A bit raw and rough around the edges
Up until their 1993 album, "Songs of Faith and Devotion" (SOFAD) eighties stalwarts Depeche Mode were a foursome. However, in the four year hiatus between SOFAD and its follow-up, 1997's "Ultra" the band suffered a number of setbacks and nearly disintegrated.
First, long time member Alan Wilder (who had replaced Vince Clarke - latterly of Yazoo and Erasure - after the first album), who was feeling underused and underappreciated, departed to concentrate on "Recoil" - his solo recoding project. Then, charismatic front man David Gahan did his best to hasten his exit from this world after his increasingly severe heroin addiction culminated in a near-fatal overdose in May 1996.
After Gahan's brush with death, it looked highly unlikely that the band would manage to get into a studio together, much less record another album, and it left Martin Gore - the band's chief songwriter and creative force - to contemplate releasing the material he had put together as a solo effort.
Fortunately, Gahan got his act together, and after a successful stint in rehab, the band managed to reconvene as a three-piece ensemble with Andrew Fletcher reprising his role as keyboard and bass player as well as de-facto manager.
Ultra is a creature of circumstance, clearly influenced by the personal crises each of the band members were dealing with. It's genesis lends it a far grungier, industrial and more rock-orientated feel than SOFAD, which had the band experimenting with a softer, more orchestral sound. Gahan's ordeal clearly left its mark on the band and the translation of his experiences into music turned Ultra into something between a confession and a catharsis.
The album, their ninth studio effort released in May 1997, was - unusually but understandably - not followed by a tour, and it wasn't until the following year's greatest hits release ("The Singles 86-98") that the band went on the road again for a brief (by their standards) four month stint.
Despite not being supported by a tour, Ultra was more of a commercial than a critical success, reaching No.1 in the UK album chart and spawning several singles that received widespread airplay. The most successful of these were "Barrel of a Gun" (No.4), "It's No Good" (No.5) and the anthemic "Home" (No.23).
AVAILABILITY & PRICE
The original 1996 release of the album is only available as a digital download (a bargain at £3.00 on Amazon). However, Ultra was re-released as a two-disc Collector's Edition in 2009 with additional content. This new version (which includes various B-sides and mixes that I have not reviewed) is available in CD form for £10.98 - also from Amazon.
> Barrel of a Gun
BOAG, as it is known by fans, was their thirty-first UK single and was released a few months ahead of the album. Given the well-publicised travails of the band and the sense of anticipation generated by the composition of new material, it was met with a combination of excitement and relief. A pounding drum line, reminiscent of a laboured heartbeat, is overlaid by Dave Gahan's distorted vocals.
It has a surreal, slightly blurry quality about it which is punctured by moments of lucidity and clarity - a superb analogy for the drug-induced haze that it is meant to symbolise. It is, by far, the darkest single that Depeche Mode have ever released, which is not surprising given its title and origins. The track immediately grabs you by the short and curlies, demanding your full and undivided attention and doesn't let go until the grating, grungy guitars fade to black.
"A vicious appetite visits me each night and won't be satisfied, won't be denied. An unbearable pain, a beating in my brain that leaves the mark of Cain right here inside..."
The third track on the album was also the third single and is also one of the few Martin Gore led songs to be released as a single by the band. It is an anthemic song with a haunting orchestral string arrangement, often performed by Martin in concert in a simple acoustic version. It's a beautiful, evocative song well suited to his trademark baritone tremolo that is even better live and, as such, a firm fan favourite. The lyrics are open to interpretation, but to me it's all about understanding and knowing that there is one place, or state of mind, in which you are happiest and where you feel like you are at "home".
"And I thank you for bringing me here, for showing me home, for singing these tears. Finally I've found that I belong. Feels like home, I should have known from my first breath..."
> It's No Good
The second single is a slightly sleazy track, that starts off with distorted ambient noise before a nice bass kicks in, accompanied by soaring keyboards and Gahan's vocals. The video to the song features the band as a low-rent lounge act dressed in seventies style glitter and spandex and serves as a pretty good visual interpretation of the song. The lyrics speak of a man convinced - perhaps even obsessed - with the idea that a particular woman is the one for him and it's only a matter of time before she realises she has little choice in the matter (the title of the song alludes to this, implying that resistance to his obvious charms is useless...)
"I'm going to take my time, I have all the time in the world to make you mine - it is written in the stars above..."
I would describe this song as the softer, mellower cousin to BOAG. A rock-influenced track with more of a pop twist than its grungier relative, Useless is guitar, rather than bass-led and as such, provides more atmosphere and scope for subtlety. Gahan leads on vocals with Gore providing the harmonies later in the song. The lyrics suggest that the singer is talking to himself, berating, criticising and trying to come to terms with how useless he feels.
"All my useless advice, all my hanging around, all your cutting down to size, all my bringing you down..."
> The Bottom Line
From quiet beginnings - with its soft, subtle intro and Martin Gore's understated vocals - this track grows and grows, drawing you in bit by bit as the lyrics take hold ad the backing track builds in sound and intensity. It is a see-sawing track accompanied by a myriad of different sounds and textures, from twanging guitars to soaring strings. This is one of my favourite songs - featuring an outstandingly expressive vocal performance from Gore and interesting, compelling lyrics. The meaning of the song itself is ambiguous and could fit many subjects - religion, sex, drugs - take your pick. However, it is clearly a devotional - I'm just not sure what the devotion is aimed at. An underappreciated but brilliant composition.
"Like a cat dragged in from the rain, who goes straight back out to do it all over again, I'll be back for more..."
The final song is a fitting, introspective yet expressive end to the album. I like to think of it as the band's message to its fans that despite their issues, despite the rough time they had of it, their desire to keep going on, to look to the future and move on is still strong. On an album so indelibly linked to the band's raw emotional state when it was written, Insight provides a positive, uplifting note on which to finish. It has a compelling, repetitive chorus that lends itself brilliantly to live performance, and I was very pleased to hear them perform it when I saw them in concert last night (15th December 2009 at the O2 Arena).
"And the spirit of love is rising within me, talking to you now, telling you clearly, the fire still burns. I'm talking to you now, the fire still burns, whatever you do now, you've got to give love - the world still turns..."
Most Depeche Mode albums feature relatively short instrumental interludes used to segue between songs. Some of them are quite good and interesting works in of themselves, but most - including the two on Ultra ("Uselink" and "Jazz Thieves) are no more than mildly diverting filler. There is also a "secret" instrumental tagged on to the end of the last track called "Junior Painkiller" - a variation on the B-side ("Painkiller") released with the "Barrel of a Gun" single.
The fact that the band were around at all to produce this album was something of an achievement in of itself. As a fan since their breakthrough Black Celebration album in 1986, to me, Ultra represented a welcome return at a time when the dissolution of Depeche Mode was a real possibility. Given the circumstances, it is fair to say that it was difficult to give an objective assessment of the album due to the palpable relief that it had been recorded at all.
Has it stood the test of time? In retrospect, Ultra smacks of an album that had to be written - of feelings that had to be processed and a closure that had to be reached - before the band could truly move on to achieve some of the creative highs that were marked by their four year purple patch which produced a stunning trifecta of albums (Black Celebration (1986), Music for the Masses (1987) and Violator (1990)).
Taken in isolation, it does not stand up too well with the band's output either before or since. However, whilst it lacked some of the coherence and artistry of Depeche Mode's classic albums, it did produce some memorable tracks - especially "Home". It's No Good, and "Barrel of A Gun".
FULL TRACK LISTING
1. Barrel of a Gun (5:35)
2. The Love Thieves (6:34)
3. Home (5:42)
4. It's No Good (5:58)
5. Uselink (2:21)
6. Useless (5:12)
7. Sister of Night (6:04)
8. Jazz Thieves (2:54)
9. Freestate (6:44)
10. The Bottom Line (4:26)
11. Insight (6:26)
Hidden Track: Junior Painkiller (2:11)
© Hishyeness 2009
Summary: It was nice to have them back, but they could (and did) do better...