November 30, 2006

Review: Depeche Mode | The Best Of Depeche Mode Volume 1

Depeche Mode -- The Best Of Depeche Mode Volume 1... Or "Catching Up With Depeche Mode -- For The Umpteenth Time."

We're not certain how much of a review follows below, but that seems sort of appropriate. After all, how much is there to say about British synth pop legends Depeche Mode at this stage of the game that hasn't been said before? So let's just say this will be part memoir and part essay, with maybe a little analysis tossed in at the end. Maybe not.

We remember the exact year (1985) and pretty near the date (late June) when we first realized that we liked Depeche Mode. We were a strapping lad of 11 and had been dragged along to a parent's 20th college reunion. At one point there was a picnic in a field thronged with Ivy Leaguers and their remarkably unremarkable progeny. But very near our group was a gaggle of alternative-looking teen girls in black concert shirts blasting "People Are People" from a boombox (propelled at least in part by this music video, the song became the title track of a U.S. only EP in 1984, and the EP has the distinction of being the first of many, many Depeche Mode compilations; "People Are People" was initially released on 1984's Some Great Reward). We realized that we sure would have liked to have been hanging out with them.

As a child of the golden age of MTV, this was not the first we'd been exposed to Depeche Mode. But it was certainly the first time we felt a band represented a means of becoming part of something (at least slightly) outside the mainstream. And so the experience sold us on the band, because we wanted to be as cool and different as these goth-lite gals. It was a feeling that probably didn't go away for, well, maybe it hasn't gone away at all. But during the remainder of the '80s and the turn of the '90s the triumphant live Depeche Mode record 101 was released, followed not long after by the tour de force Violator (which along with The Sundays' Reading, Writing And Arithmetic and Joy Division's Substance was the only thing we listened to on an amazing trip to Germany in the summer of 1990). We listened to both DM records compulsively, and became a devoted fan.

Fast forward to this morning, and to a thing we hate. We hate what we refer to as the "me too" review -- we even hate "me too" reportage, one of the most unfortunate, homogenizing symptoms of the hive mindset of the music blogosphere. Even so, we were struck by the similar angle of today's review at Pfork of the latest Depeche Mode hits collection and the review we'd been drafting for a few weeks. You will notice as you dig into the paragraphs below that, despite our love for the band, the release of yet another Depeche Mode collection is a wholly uninspiring event. This is quite striking considering how few will quibble with the accolades for chief songwriter Martin Gore's superlative pop chops (which remain refreshingly intact, if the sole new -- well, previously unreleased, as it is an outtake from a recent album -- track "Martyr" is any indication). But as excellent as Depeche Mode has been and as good as they remain, The Best Of Depeche Mode Volume 1 begs the question of just how much repackaging of past triumphs can be done. The answer is, "as many as will shift units," of course, which is the crux of the Pitchfork review.

Despite all this, we still feel compelled to engage with the music at hand, if from arm's length. First, let's ruminate on hits collections and how they are typically treated. A review of your run-of-the-mill hits collection from a given artist generally touches on the following areas like an unimaginative lover: which records from the discography at issue are over- or under-represented by the compilers and possible explanations as to why; the collected works' relative fitness as a proxy for the artist's entire oeuvre; the degree to which any extraneous recordings, whether newly recorded or rarely heard, either 1) illuminate the darker corners of a band or songwriter's psyche and other material or 2) motivate hardcore fans (who logically shouldn't need to own such a compilation otherwise) to purchase the set. Throw in a clever turn of phrase or two, a personal anecdote about a zany live show or a tragic relationship from one's late teens, and the modern writer has largely satisfied the paint-by-numbers expectations of the reader (or even editor) of a typical glossy mag or glowing blog.

Frankly, we're not going to bother with hitting any of those points. What we will say is that at this stage of their career Depeche Mode has a tough row to hoe to get most music fans to do more than disinterestedly blink at the release of a hits collection, let alone inspire a writer toward stunning insights. This is no slag on the music included on The Best Of Depeche Mode Volume 1, which is as roundly excellent as the various days and ages in which it was released. All the same, Catching Up With Depeche Mode, the second compilation of Depeche Mode music, was released in 1985 -- do they still think we haven't caught up?

Stream Depeche Mode records for free at Rhapsody here.

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