I have to say, it’s a little daunting writing about my favorite band, even moreso when it’s my favorite album by my favorite band. Yes, it can be argued that there are better albums out there – I’ve made that argument myself – but this is my favorite.
I’ve written about Depeche Mode a couple times before, including a bit about Black Celebration, the album that really catapulted me into Depeche Mode fandom. But if Black Celebration was the start of my trek as a Depeche-head, Ultra was the zenith of that trajectory. Not that I didn’t like the albums that came after, but this is the one I always come back to.
Released twenty years ago today, April 14, 1997, Ultra is tied to a very specific – and emotionally tumultuous – period of my life. A lot was going on. I won’t bore anyone with soap opera specifics but to say that my reasons for saying this is my favorite Depeche Mode record might not resonate with anyone else – it’s my favorite because it’s personal.
That also makes it harder to write about objectively. All of the hardcore Depeche Mode fans – and there are a lot of us – have their own reasons why they favor one album over another, and it all comes down to how they connect emotionally to any given work. The band has one of the most global and most passionate fan bases I’ve ever seen. Something about their music touches us deeply.
The album starts off with the lead single, “Barrel Of A Gun,” which sounds unlike just about everything they’d released prior. It’s got a harder edge to it than earlier work, fueled by a rumbling bassline that borders on subsonic and, of course, Dave Gahan‘s stellar vocals. You wouldn’t know, listening to it, that this was a man who’d been clinically dead from a heroin overdose months prior, but some of that pain and torment definitely come through on this track. It’s a powerful opening number and, in truth, it took me a long time to warm up to this one. It was so different than anything else they’d done that, for a while, I wasn’t sure if I liked it at all.
The recording of this album was also a tumultuous time for the band themselves. In addition to Gahan’s personal demons, professionally they lost a quarter of the band as Alan Wilder made his departure after the tour for their prior album, Songs Of Faith And Devotion. Without his input into the structure and arrangements of the songs, Martin Gore found himself relying on a series of studio collaborators, most notably Ultra‘s producer, Tim Simenon.
“Love Thieves,” the second track on the album is a more conventional Depeche Mode song. It addresses a siren at whose feet all would-be Lotharios fall, an irresistible force of nature sent to punish the unfaithful or those who previously thought themselves incapable of love. “As sure as Adam was Eve / Sure as Jonah turned whaler / They’re crooked love thieves / and you are their jailer…”
In 1996, the drum-and-bass (D’n’B) trend was in full force and its influence is felt on Ultra. Moreover, this movement resulted in some of the best remixes in the Depeche Mode catalog, including at least two complete bootleg D’n’B reworkings of the entire record. One of the best examples of this – and sometimes my favorite track on the whole album – is the first of the “Martin” tracks on the LP, “Home” where he takes over the vocals in place of Dave Gahan. It is a deceptively sweet rumination on death and mortality that I initially mistook for what it appears to be at face value – a return home. However, the lyrics in the final verse of the song give away its true meaning: “Pretend that I’ll make amends / The next time / Befriend the glorious end of the line…” It’s a sad sounding song that manages to be uplifting at the same time.
“It’s No Good” was the second single off the album, a plea to a distant lover to recognize the star-crossed destinations fate has in store. Despite Dave’s confidence and bravado in delivering the vocals, the song still comes off as a desperate cry for help, an inability to recognize that someone is gone forever. While the single reimagined the track as a dancefloor thumper (again, courtesy of some excellent remixes), the chorus reveals the true despondency of its narrator. “Don’t say you’re happy out there without me / I know you can’t be… ’cause it’s no good…” This was one that really resonated for me in the years after its release (and before the release of their follow-up album). I hadn’t yet reached a point in my life where I could just accept that things were over and would never go back to the way I wanted them. It’s a little embarrassing now (not so much so that I’m refraining from writing about it), but there was a time when it seemed as though this song was custom-written for what I was feeling at that point in my life.
Though it’s little more than a two-minute segue between songs, “Uselink” is one of the best instrumentals the band ever recorded and it leads directly into what is also sometimes my favorite song on the album, “Useless.” Propelled by a churning, growling bassline and some of Martin Gore’s best guitar work to date, it also features live drumming courtesy of Keith LeBlanc and Gota Yashiki. The song is a kiss-off to a friend or lover, and the music seems to match the anger of the lyrics. This is also one of the few examples, off the top of my head, of a video making the song better – the payoff is in the last five seconds.
It’s tempting to continue on and break down each song on the record, but there’s really no need. I’ve covered all of the singles that were released from Ultra and the rest of the album is just as good. This is one that I can listen to front-to-back at any time and still truly enjoy twenty years later.
The problem with having a favorite record from your favorite band – and it’s a minor problem, I’ll grant you – is that no matter what else they do, they’ll never match it, and that could very well be due to the fact that you’re no longer in the same headspace you were when you got hooked. I still buy everything that Depeche Mode releases and 2013’s Delta Machine was the best thing they’d put out since Ultra (I know there are a lot of fans who would take exception – Delta Machine got slagged off pretty well at the time), but there won’t ever be another record from this band that moves me the same way that Ultra did from 1997-2000… and if I’m being honest, it still moves me the same way from time to time depending on my mood when I listen to it.
Twenty years seems like a long time, but this album still feels like it came out last year. Part of that is the music and the frequency with which I still listen to it. But part of it is that there are times that I can put this record on and immediately be pulled back into those defining moments from two decades ago. That’s a special kind of portal, to have a piece of music tied so singularly to a memory or collection of memories. There are only a few albums that do that for me, none as strongly as this one.