We often talk about “decades” of music as if they were distinctly separate entities from one another. As if once 1980 rolled around, all things ’70s were dead and buried; that the ’90s were a not only a different species than the ’80s but a different life form altogether. As different and separate as an oak from a frog or Mars from Saturn. Now of course, that’s not the reality of it. Years blend into each other and even if Elton and Fleetwood Mac saw smaller audiences listening in the ’80s than the ’70s, they kept on rolling and doing pretty much what they’d always been doing.
That said, when we think ’80s, there’s a tendency to think lively, light-weight, electropop music, flashy videos and outrageous hair. Fast forward to the ’90s and we think grunge, distorted guitars and ripped flannel shirts. So, as Rolling Stone would note, “it ain’t easy being an ’80s icon (in the ’90s.)” One might imagine that Men without Hats wouldn’t have found as receptive an audience in 1993 had they dusted off their Casios and recorded a “Safety Dance Part 2” and had happy Rennaissance Fayre characters frolicking in the video as they did with their original in the ’80s. Which brings us to Depeche Mode.
Beginning as a relatively upbeat, synthesizer-driven dance-pop outfit in the early-’80s, they’d grown considerably darker, deeper and less bop-poppy as the decade progressed and by the beginning of the ’90s were barely recognizable in their black clothes and tattoos, sporting dour (yet still danceable) tunes that even broke out a Fender or Les Paul to compliment the Casios and Yamahas from time to time. That trend continued as they put an end to four years of virtual exile with their ninth studio album, Ultra, which came out this day in 1997.
It had been an interesting, if chaotic span between Songs of Faith and Devotion and this one for the Brits. Although they’d toured extensively for that album and spent much of ’93-94 on the road, they’d spent some time apart and seemed to the world to have fallen apart by the time Ultra hit the shelves. Largely because of singer Dave Gahan’s spiraling heroin addiction which led to at least two overdoses, a nearly-successful suicide attempt and becoming so well acquainted with some paramedics (who responded to calls to resusitate or rescue him) that they knew him and nicknamed him “The Cat”… as in having nine lives. All this silliness coupled with not a lot going on left founding member Alan Wilder disenchanted, and eventually quitting the band, leaving them with the first new lineup since their second album, and only a core trio of Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher.
Little wonder this left them in a fairly dark space as Martin Gore began collecting his thoughts and penning tunes for this album. They began recording in early-’96 and took about a year to finish it, using studios in L.A. , New York and London along the way as Gahan finally began to get his life more together (he spent some of that time in rehab which finally would take) and move to the U.S.
The result was put together by a new producer to them, Tim Simenon, a producer who’d worked with Neneh Cherry and an act called Gavin Friday that the band really liked, and was widely known as a happening English club DJ at the time. three cities, a year of time and a new producer made Ultra a little less cohesive than many of their works. all that drama made it largely, although not unremittingly, bleak. But the band’s talent made it a solid work nonetheless.
Rolling Stone compared them to U2 in following up their statement that it wasn’t easy being an ’80s icon by them, and noted while the Irish lads had turned to electronica and Euro club sounds to keep them relevant, Depeche Mode went the opposite way, “the prior decade’s most arena-friendly technopop outfits began relying more on… guitars…to lend emotional urgency.” While no one was going to confuse them with Metallica around then, there was no missing the fact that they had a heavier sound less completely reliant on synths and electric pianos than they had been a decade before. Martin Gore still knew how to write a catchy song though, and this one contained several of the best of their latter works, including the lovely “Home” and the brooding “Barrel of a Gun.” Perhaps adding to the effect, the made-to-be-listened-to-on-CD effort came in just over an hour with eight of the 11 tracks running past five minutes.
Not all critics were entirely enthused, although few really despised it either. Rolling Stone gave it 3-stars, Entertainment Weekly graded it a “B+” and overseas in their homeland, the NME rated it 6/10. Rolling Stone liked “the bittersweet strings in the plaintive ‘Home’” and “moody, pulsating ballads such as ‘The Bottom Line’ and “Love Thieves” (which) are ideal vehicles for Gahan’s brooding baritone” but felt it lacked a standout obvious radio single. EW liked the “up-to-the-second synth effects with ripping melodies”. The NME meanwhile, noted it was the “culmination of a festering melodrama” and seemed to dislike not so much the music – “kinkier than U2 but not as perverse as Nine Inch Nails” – as their American popularity. They criticized the Mode for spending years “driving their juggernaut of angst across the States” with “startingly successful” results.
Perhaps not startingly, but it was successful. Ultra hit #1 in the UK (their second, and to date, last one) and Germany and hit a very respectable #2 in Canada and #5 in the U.S., where “It’s No Good” became their sixth top 40 hit. The album went gold in all those places and in the UK, “It’s No Good” got to #5, “Barrel of a Gun” made #4 (their best showing on the singles chart since “People are People” nearly a decade and a half earlier) and were joined by “Home” and “Useless” in the top 40, making it their third-straight album to score a quartet of top 40 hits at home. Guess that “juggernaut of angst” found a “Home” on both sides of the ocean, NME.