While I’ve been a fan of Depeche Mode’s work since the mid 90’s, it wasn’t until a few years later in high school when a friend of mine and I started feverishly trading mix tapes (honest to god magnetic tapes — rest assured, I feel quite the geezer) that I started to really dig into their pre-Violator back catalog in earnest.
I’d owned Ultra, Violator, and Construction Time Again for some time at that point, but at least for me, Black Celebration is what “pulled it all together.” While the band had heretofore released a number of taut, effective — even by some measures groundbreaking — pop albums with a lite-industrial edge following Vince Clarke’s departure, Black Celebration was a landmark for Depeche Mode in terms of songwriting, arrangement, and, for lack of a better term, overall atmosphere. One complaint I will make — I have always felt that the album’s spirit was compromised to an extent by rather meek production, an issue which has been addressed to some degree in the 2007 remaster; but this is a minor niggle, as it was plainly never meant to be an “in your face” album, and that’s no bad thing. It is a subtle, richly textured masterpiece that expands on their increasingly experimental (and increasingly dark) past efforts with a style that’s unmistakably its own.
I’ll spare you an exhaustive description of all the instruments used on Black Celebration as I have neither the knowledge nor the space; however, a few points do bear mentioning. 1986 was a peculiar year for electronic instruments and, consequently, for keyboard-oriented music as a whole — it would be another year or so before Roland’s D-50 would take over the world, and another year more before the Korg M1 would do the same (both of which codified design principles which, for better or worse, strongly inform most modern synthesizers); people were fast becoming jaded with the infamous tinny electric pianos and jagged basses of the Yamaha DX7; the analog synthesizers of the day, while by and large seeing more creative use than their digital cousins, were nevertheless frequently being used for similar “signature” sounds, partly due to the advent of new microprocessor-based designs that allowed for sound settings to be stored and recalled instantly with a few keypresses; samplers (digital musical instruments which can record, manipulate, and play back real-world or synthesized sounds) were very much in fashion, but still prohibitively expensive for most musicians and even many studios — a brand new E-mu Emulator I or II — the de facto “affordable” samplers of the period — would still set you back $8,000-$10,000, and that’s in early 80’s dollars (to be fair, there were a handful of less expensive samplers available by the mid 1980’s but they generally saw little mainstream use at the time).
While Depeche Mode has always been a band that makes use of any and every electronic instrument available to them at the time, whether they happen to be in vogue or not, Black Celebration’s crisp, delicate sound was due in large part to heavy use of some relatively obscure instruments. The German-made PPG Wave was one (which Alan Wilder names as their “first digital synth” — actually a combination of a unique digital sound source with analog filters and amplifiers); the American N.E.D. Synclavier was another. Their technical merits are beyond the scope of this review, but suffice it to say that both produce sounds that were vastly different from what most contemporaneous synthesizers could offer (with the possible exception of an expertly programmed DX7), and all but inconceivable with analog synthesizers of any era. Furthermore, the Synclavier, which had seen use in some of their previous work, and the Emulator granted them sampling facility (albeit extremely primitive by modern standards), which account for many percussive elements and the mangled voices that drift in and out of much of the album.
A few words about the artwork (and bear with me as I have the original US CD in front of me — other pressings may well vary somewhat) — it is…well, black. The front cover is laid out something like a triptych, with two empty black panels straddling a murky nighttime scene of ghostly red fists raised against a blank glass building with black pennons streaming down the sides. There is what appears to be a streak of reflected light across the middle of the image as if we are meant to be viewing this scene from a screen or from within a neighboring building. The inside cover, apart from a few words and the disc’s catalogue number, is solid black. Inside the booklet we find heavily stylized, pop-artish icons watermarked under the lyrics featuring planes flying in formation, trumpets, flags — two black ones and a white one — (all in threes), a bullhorn, a birthday cake with six askew candles, the Depeche Mode logo, and others. The overtly military tone of the artwork clashes somewhat with the album’s intensely personal lyrics (“New Dress” arguably being an exception), but it does certainly feel like the album — bleak, detached, paranoid.
Sonically and visually, Black Celebration evokes, quoting from the back of the liner notes, “life in the so-called space age.”
Depeche Mode — Black Celebration: Track-by-track review
1. “Black Celebration”
This song starts with about half a minute of distorted voice fragments (reportedly of Mute Records founder and DM coproducer Daniel Miller saying “a brief period of rejoicing”) over a soft drone after which a syncopated sequenced ostinato enters in. At 0:44, the main theme presents itself — all soft-focus leads, ominous drones, and clattering sampled percussives. David Gahan’s voice enters several measures later positively drenched in reverb, as if he’s singing from a great distance. The first few lines (to say nothing of the rest of the song) set the tone for the album as a whole, one of half-hearted optimism in the face of despair (or possibly vice-versa, depending on your perspective) —
Let’s have a black celebration tonight
To celebrate the fact that we’ve seen the back
Of another black day
— although Martin Gore’s high-pitched harmonizing does add a touch of lightness to the overall mood.
The arrangement builds throughout with synthesized chimes and the introduction of an insistent drumbeat in second verse. Following the first bridge, wherein the arrangement drops to a whisper, a subtle countermelody to the original sequence appears in the left channel which builds over the course of the verse. After the second bridge, the song becomes a conflagration of vocal overdubs and glassy synthetic percussion until the arrangement comes to an abrupt halt as Gahan holds the word “tonight,” leaving only the sequence and warped samples from the beginning to skitter away until the beginning of “Fly on the Windscreen.”
2. “Fly On The Windscreen-Final”
Three versions of “Fly on the Windscreen” appeared on various pressings of the “It’s Called a Heart” single from the previous year (the original version, an extended version, and the “Death Mix”). Black Celebration’s “Final” version adds loads of distorted vocal samples and synthesized percussion absent in the original and fleshes out the arrangement considerably.
This song is surely one of the more unnerving examples of David Gahan and Martin Gore’s talent for harmonized vocals — Gahan’s brittle monotone is offset by elegiac wails from Gore. Lyrically, “Fly on a Windscreen” is a paranoid mess — each verse begins with the line “death is everywhere” followed by lines about “flies on the windscreen” and “lambs for the slaughter.” While more immediate and more neurotic than the title track both lyrically and musically, the two parallel each other rather neatly — the choruses in “Black Celebration” and the verses in “Fly on the Windscreen” conspicuously end with the word “tonight” sustained and occupying a line all to itself; both contrast external anxiety in the densely orchestrated verses with a desire for intimacy during musical lulls (the bridge in the case of “Black Celebration,” the chorus in the case of “Fly on the Windscreen”) — compare the title track’s “I want to take you in my arms / forgetting all I couldn’t do today” with Gahan’s sullenly uttered command to “come here, kiss me now” from “Fly…” The brassy synthesizers built up during the repetition of the final chorus slowly subside leaving a rigid drum machine beat with some low-pitched drones and feedback hum; over this grim backdrop, Martin Gore and an artificial female voice (actually Gore’s voice sped up on tape) whisper “touch me” over and over until the music dissolves into the edgy drones that begin “A Question of Lust”.
3. “A Question Of Lust”
For all the Kraftwerkian clatter of pitched-down metal-on-metal impacts that serve as the track’s beat, “A Question of Lust” is a straightforward, even shameless romantic ballad that might even come across as schmaltzy if not for the disarming sincerity of Martin Gore’s boyishly pure lead vocal.
There are however a few odd points that bear remarking upon. What immediately jumped out at me is that while it starts as a fairly run-of-the-mill pop song in E major with some tasteful emphasis on relative minor elements, the last few chords of the chorus (“it is all of these things and more…”) venture into unexpected territory — from the perfectly obvious IV (A major), it proceeds to the bIII (G major), bVI (C major), iv (A minor) — none of which occur in the E major scale — and it returns to to the tonic as a tonally ambiguous E5. At that point there is a rather dark four bar break in the E Dorian mode before returning to its home key of E major.
Bizarrely, there are a few places in the first few verses where the singer casts himself as the child of the object of his affection. The lyric is also riddled with insecurity —
Apologies are all you seem to get from me[…]
You know each and every one
It frightens me[…]
It’s a question of not letting what we’ve built up crumble to dust
…and so on. I’ve always found the absolute vulnerability of the lyric affecting.
The last minute or so is embellished with a bittersweet ascending melody as Gore’s vocals become increasingly intense; this remains the dominant musical element as Gore’s echoing voice recedes further and further back in the mix.
Another emotional Gore-sung ballad, this is notable for several reasons. The most obvious is the over-the-top delay effect on Gore’s voice throughout which serves as a kind of insular, artificial call and response — a lone singer electronically responding to his own call. Secondly is the bare-bones instrumentation — Gore’s tremulous vocal is framed by nothing more than an acoustic piano. At 1:54 long, it is the album’s shortest song by a considerable margin.
Similarly to “A Question of Lust,” the lyric positively drips with insecurity — in fact, maybe even more so; I’d cite examples, but virtually every line serves equally well. Unlike the guileless “A Question of Lust,” however, “Sometimes” has a bit of a sting in its tail —
You must be…
You must be…
As embarrassing as me
5. “It Doesn’t Matter Two”
I couldn’t possibly begin a review of “It Doesn’t Matter Two” without at least taking a glance at “It Doesn’t Matter” from Some Great Reward. The original paints a picture of the singer’s willful refusal to look facts in the face concerning an ex-lover or perhaps an unlikely infatuation with a friend. Vocally it is delivered in the most laid back, carefree tenor Martin Gore seems able to muster; musically it is a sweet mixture of tine-y synth plucks and smooth, swelling sampled percussion with only the occasional intrusion of an augmented 5th to suggest that something may be amiss.
The follow-up on Black Celebration kicks right off with a claustrophobic series of staccato vocal fragments (which sound to me like an Emulator choir sample, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were from the PPG) and at once you can tell that something’s a bit cracked here. The contented languor Gore’s voice exuded in the earlier song has been replaced with an insinuating tension; where the original expressed undue confidence over a misguided relationship, “It Doesn’t Matter Two” concerns itself with intractable anxiety over the one he’s involved in. There is an unambiguous positivity evident in parts of the lyric and the song does project a feeling of intimacy, but it is an uncomfortable intimacy and the positivity is dismissed straightaway as transitory or altogether meaningless, e.g. —
The feeling is intense
You grip me with your eyes
And then I realize
It doesn’t matter
Beginning with the second verse, a syncopated tuned percussion part is added that recalls the electric piano-like plucks in the original, but restated in a pointed, edgy way. The final verse is bookended with a mildly sinister harmonic minor melody played with a reedy, doudouk-like synthesizer tone (although I get a bit of an accordion vibe from it as well) which outlines the song’s peculiar Emin-D#-Amin chord progression. The song menacingly slows to a halt over the course of the last half a minute.
6. “A Question Of Time”
With its pounding rhythm section, brassy lead synthesizers, and dissonant passages, “A Question of Time” is without a doubt the preeminent rocker of the album; and, of recorded versions at least, in my view the album version is definitive — without going into too much detail, the various remixed single versions have a somewhat thinner sound, partly due to very slightly increased playback speed. Musically, “A Question of Time” is instantly recognizable for its thunderous i-VII chord progression during the verses, executed with almost punky abandon, and its signature riff which wrings every ounce of funky dissonance out of the F7 chord (specifically, the 3rd, 5th, and b7th — A, C, and Eb, respectively — are emphasized, which, on their own outside the context of the F7 chord, comprise a diminished triad).
Though the lyrics’ specific meaning is obscure, they take an urgent, cautionary tone that’s difficult not to feel a little threatened by —
I’ve got to get to you first before they do
It’s just a question of time before they lay their hands on you
And make you just like the rest
I’ve got to get to you first
It’s just a question of time
It’s never made clear whom the singer is addressing — the second verse seems to indicate it’s a 15-year-old girl — or who “they” are, or what exactly they plan do with this person; but the tone of the lyric being what it is, one can’t help questioning the singer’s own motives; the lines “I condemn them / I know my kind / What goes on in our minds” is particularly revealing.
After the final verse the arrangement builds to a fever pitch; sustained organ-like chords and a complementary melody are introduced over the main riff, David Gahan’s voice starts echoing manically, and Martin Gore repeats “it should be better” amidst the clutter of Gahan’s vocals. The song comes to an abrupt stop with Gahan dryly intoning “it’s just a question of time” in isolation.
“Stripped” begins with a complex, sparking chord that reminds me of “A Hard Day’s Night.” To my ear, it sounds like an F6/9 voiced (between various instruments) A-F-A-D-G-D. Over a spare industrial groove that evokes an idling motor, David Gahan sings with blatantly erotic intensity in tandem with a primal, mostly minor pentatonic tuned percussion line about receding from the modern world. My aforementioned tape-makin’ friend analyzed the lyrics more gracefully than I could in an email conversation a few years back, so I’m just going to quote him: “‘Stripped’ is about the desire to escape the modern world. Both a political and sexual song. About how our natural state has nothing to do with buildings and concrete and smoke and everything to do with being naked in the trees and procreation. That’s a very simplified version of course. Basically its about wanting to separate oneself and one’s lover from the technological world and the contemporary society, to find the blissful peace and ecstasy available only to those of a simpler time. Remove all distractions. Remove everything that is unnecessary. Leaving only the natural things to focus on. I suppose ideally that would make the process of seduction that much more intense. Ideally. Somehow I think the bugs and sticks and pine needles would interfere somewhere along the way.”
The arrangement builds with a harder syncopated beat and synthesizer melody in the second verse; the groove is varied in the following chorus with Martin Gore periodically harmonizing with Gahan (usually at intense-sounding 5th intervals) as Gahan’s voice gradually becomes more revereberant. A monolithic synthesizer melody is then introduced with Gahan and Gore singing intertwining vocal parts over it. The arrangement suddenly drops to a clanking synth line and the original industrial rhythm with a few miscellaneous samples in as the reverb tail of Gore’s voice dies away. A ticking clock fades in at the very end leading into “Here Is the House.”
8. “Here Is The House”
A love song that balances sexuality with domesticity. It’s lyrically straightforward, and it’s the happiest song on the record by a mile (with one caveat that I will address later on). The sharp shift in tone is mirrored musically — the frosty digital synthesizer tones and metallic rhythmic attack of most of the other tracks here is mostly replaced by a relatively warm synth bass, guitarlike plucks, and a traditional drum machine (which sounds like a LinnDrum to me, but I confess I don’t know my drum machines very well). It can also be said that David Gahan and Martin Gore almost share the lead vocal; they harmonize throughout with Gore’s part being only slightly subordinate to Gahan’s.
9. “World Full Of Nothing”
“World Full of Nothing” is an interesting song; it’s a ballad about two kids’ First Time which is emphatically not a love song, and it manages to be tender while exploring a somewhat nihilistic outlook. I won’t comment on the lyrics, as I feel that the impression one takes away from this song depends to a great extent on their temperament and personal experiences but I will say that the chorus handily sums up the emotional core of the song —
In a world full of nothing
Though it’s not love
It means something
The song is based on a slowish, hollow-sounding rhythm and a brassy synth pad (I would guess it’s an FM sound from the Synclavier). The arrangement builds only slightly in the choruses with the addition of some chorused acoustic piano. The soothing chord structure of the chorus yields to a dissonant Amin-Cmin progression in the bridge; coincidentally, Depeche Mode would employ the same trick of moving minor chords around in b3rd intervals to somewhat different effect in “Enjoy the Silence” from Violator.
10. “Dressed In Black”
“Dressed in Black” is notable for being the only song on Black Celebration that’s not in 4/4 time (it’s a sprightly 6/8). It begins similarly to “It Doesn’t Matter Two” with a synthetic choir (which definitely sounds like the PPG’s half-cycle waves rather than a full-blown sample) and an odd and slightly dissonant chord progression — Bmin-Gmin. Apart from some additional percussion and a brassy lead during the bridge, “Dressed in Black” is one of Black Celebration’s more musically sedentary tracks — relative to, say, “Stripped” or “Fly on the Windscreen” anyway.
The lyrics are somewhat murky — especially during the bridge — but seem to describe a sadomasochistic relationship between the singer and the object of his affection who’s “dressed in black again.”
11. “New Dress”
The music throughout is comprised of a steadily crescendoing drum beat and thick-as-molasses synth bass, periodically embellished with a wiry lead tone. The overall effect is both groovy and uneasy.
One of Depeche Mode’s more overt political songs, what’s really fascinating about “New Dress” is its lyric and the way it’s presented. Each line in the verses expresses some horrible event, all delivered in the terse, action-packed language of newspaper headlines —
Jet airliner shot from sky
Famine, horror, millions die
Earthquake terror figures rise
— with Gahan’s dispassionate monotone equalized to sound like a broadcast medium. What passes for the chorus is a single line uttered once with heavy distortion: “Princess Di is wearing a new dress.” Needless to say, the song was recorded a decade or so prior to the motor accident that ended her life; but the fashionable celebrity’s identity is inconsequential — pointedly so, even. It’s a comment on the tenor of the national dialogue (just as valid in the states as in the UK) that feeds a morbid fascination over tragedy and a rapt focus on…well, gossip.
The messy, circular reasoning of the bridge does express a tenuous hopefulness to be able to change the world for the better. This noble, if naïve, sentiment is accompanied by a brief transposition into the relative major key of F before returning to the key of D minor to repeat the revolted and revolting chorus. Oddly, “New Dress” ends on the same F6/9 chord that introduces “Stripped;” I wonder if it was the media that made the singer therein want to abandon society?
12. “But Not Tonight”
Expressing pure, unqualified joy at being alive, “But Not Tonight” is unquestionably the most positive song on Black Celebration; however, “But Not Tonight” is actually a B-side from the “Stripped” single that was appended to American pressings — UK pressings as well as the multinational 2007 remaster end with “New Dress.” As such, I have mixed feelings about it — on one hand, the final chord of “New Dress” squares the album handily (or at least it does most of side B), and the album maintains a contiguous mood from start to finish; on the other hand, I really like the emotional lift at the end of a very, very bleak album (besides, I first bought the original US issue of the CD in high school and I’m used to it).
“But Not Tonight” is based around a I-iii-vi-IV (D-F#min-Bmin-G) chord progression, a slight variation on the instantly familiar — one might even say cliché — I-V-vi-IV progression used in…well, take your pick — “Let it Be” by the Beatles, “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley, “Today” by the Smashing Pumpkins, “When I Come Around” by Green Day, and literally dozens of others.
The lyric is a simple and endearing vignette about being alone at night and caught in a downpour and loving every moment of it.
Black Celebration by Depeche Mode
“Fly On The Windscreen-Final”
“A Question Of Lust”
“It Doesn’t Matter Two”
“A Question Of Time”
“Here Is The House”
“World Full Of Nothing”
“Dressed In Black”
“But Not Tonight”