Today, Depeche Mode released their latest album, Spirit. Thirty-one years ago, March 17, 1986, they released their fifth studio album, Black Celebration.
Black Celebration was a milestone record for Depeche Mode. It broke away from a lot of the upbeat pop of prior records like Some Great Reward and the minimalist experimentalism of Construction Time Again. It was – and arguably, still is – far and away their darkest record to date, laying the groundwork for future successes with Music For The Masses and 1990’s Violator.
Black Celebration was the first Depeche Mode album I owned. I had liked the “People Are People” single from 1984, so for some reason, my older brother thought I’d like to get their latest album for xMas in 1986. I was fifteen years old. Though Martin Gore was 24 when his band recorded this, his lyrics came at the perfect time for a shy, introverted, devout teenager unsure of himself as he approached adulthood. The overarching themes of lust, fear, and desperation resounded loud and clear for me.
It took me a long time to warm up to this record, and that has been the case with many of Depeche Mode’s works. I’m a huge fan – they’re my all-time favorite band, I’ve seen them half a dozen times, and I’ve got close to 200 CDs including singles, bootlegs, and the lot – but most of their music isn’t catchy in the pop sense and it takes a while to sink below the surface. One of the first songs that really caught my ear when I listened to this album was “Sometimes,” really not much more than a two minute interlude on the first side of the cassette. It’s one of the songs Martin sings, rather than Dave Gahan, and what really grabbed my attention was the stark vulnerability in both his voice and his lyrics.
Sometimes, only sometimes, I question everything / And I’m the first to admit, if you catch me in a mood like this / I can be tiring, even embarrassing
But you must feel the same when you look around / You can’t tell me honestly you’re happy with what you see / Sometimes, only sometimes, you must be as embarrassing as me
Within the Depeche Mode canon, it barely ever warrants a footnote, but for me, at fifteen, it connected. And I grew to love the album from there.
To date, I think of it as one of the most personal records for me. It opens on such a bleak note with the title track which carries with it a dystopian gloom that sets the mood for the next 45 minutes – the soul-crushing drudgery of day-to-day life offset by the brief respite of physical contact. “Fly On The Windscreen” explores the worldwide horrorscape that was the late eighties, but which feels no less relevant now. And the single, “A Question Of Lust” deals with the gossamer fabric of human relationships.
They do revisit their electronic dance roots briefly with massive single “A Question Of Time,” but even here, the subject matter is dark, both the protagonist of the song and his adversaries looking to prey on innocence. “Stripped” is a natural extension of “Black Celebration,” looking for a shred of truth or honesty in the midst of that same dystopia. “Here Is The House,” again, revisits the concept of physical intimacy as a bulwark against the storm raging outside.
Then there is “World Full Of Nothing,” a reflection on finding meaning in a meaningless world. In this case, that meaning arises when a young couple loses their virginity together amidst feelings of shame and guilt. This was another song that resonated deeply. I was fifteen years old and on the verge of my first sexual experiences. Having been brought up amidst staunch Christianity, this song stood out as though it had been written just for me. Of course it hadn’t, which made its message even stronger: pop music let me know that no matter how alone and disconnected I might feel, no matter how singular I might think my own experiences, someone else had been there and felt the same things.
The initial release of the album concludes with “Dressed In Black,” an enjoyable if unimaginative rumination on a siren and, finally, “New Dress,” a political philosophy statement on the power of ideas that was prescient in its scorn for info-tainment.
However, being in America and having the cassette version, the final track on my copy of Black Celebration was the b-side to the “Stripped” single, “But Not Tonight.” The band would later deride this as a throwaway pop song that didn’t belong on the record proper, but for me it was revelatory in its repudiation of everything I’d just heard.
I’d just listened to forty minutes of downtrodden, dire reflection on the world, society, and personal relationships – it’s no coincidence that this album earned the band the nickname Depressed Mode – and here comes the final song on my cassette which is about being washed clean, of finding joy in nature, of shaking off the grime and the weight of the world and celebrating being alive, even if everything around you is going to shit.
I was fifteen years old, there was no internet – I had no way of knowing that this song wasn’t supposed to be there. For me, it was – and still is – the absolute perfect song with which to close this album. It was the only song that could properly close this album. Because I’d just had all of my suspicions verified. I’d had all my worst fears confirmed. I’d had my faith in people, government, and religion shaken over the course of forty minutes… and then here is this big, brash, loud, upbeat song telling me that it’s okay to forget those things and just be thrilled to be alive. It is a song of redemption, relief, rebirth. Most of all, it is a song of hope.