Some Great Reward? Depeche Mode’s ‘Ultra’ at 20

❉ Twenty years on, we explore the impact Ultra had on the band at a crucial stage in their career. 

Every band has a ‘make or break’ period in their career, where it can all either turn to dust, or it propels the band forward into a new era.  For Depeche Mode that album was Ultra.   It was their ninth studio album and following a number of major upheavals within the dynamics of the band, Ultra was that ultimate “difficult” album for the band.

It was released twenty years ago on 14 April 1997 by their long-term record company Mute, run by Daniel Miller, who is often referred to as the additional member of the band.

It was crucially the band’s first album since the departure of keyboardist Alan Wilder, who had left in 1995 having become completely disillusioned with life in Depeche Mode.  His departure sent shock waves throughout the DM community and many thought the band would never recover from this huge blip. Wilder went on to form his own musical project, Recoil, producing several albums under that banner.

Both Wilder’s departure, additionally coupled with singer Dave Gahan’s drug problems, which culminated in a near-fatal overdose, had caused many people to speculate at the time that the band were now finished.  The odds were surely stacked against them?  Depeche Mode picked themselves up, brushed off their troubles, and produced Ultra.

Digipak for the CD/DVD edition.

It was their first album as a trio in fifteen years since A Broken Frame.  It was additionally their first album where the band themselves were not involved with production.  Tim Simenon took on that particular task.

It received variable critique from the music press, however more crucially it was to be the bridge that was to secure the band’s success as a three piece, and ultimately move the band forward towards the 21st Century.  They have remained a three piece ever since, bringing in regular session and touring musicians (particularly keyboardist Peter Gordeno and drummer Christian Eigner).  However, despite criticism from the music press, the album managed to debut in the UK charts securing the coveted Number 1 position. It achieved a high of Number 5 in the American Billboard Top 100.

The album spawned four singles with spunky lead single Barrel of a Gun (released 3/2/1997) followed by It’s No Good (released 31/3/1997) with Dave Gahan inhabiting a sleazy lounge lizard persona in the accompanying video.

This was followed by one of my all-time favourite Depeche Mode songs, Home (16/6/1997), sung by its lyricist Martin Gore and boasting string-enhanced, succinct lyrics of security and belonging to a place. The final single from the album was Useless (20/10/1997).

The lyrical content of the album was the responsibility of Martin Gore (who sings on two tracks on the albums; ‘Home’ and equally brilliant ‘The Bottom Line’) and many of the songs contain an element of religious references quite possibly harking back to Gore’s formative years in Basildon, where he and Fletch were active members of a Christian Youth group.  From ‘by Gods Decree’ in ‘It’s No Good’ to ‘Adam and Eve to Cain and Able and Jonah the Whaler’ in ‘Love Thieves’, the religious references are palpable.

There are two instrumental tracks on the album in the form of Uselink and Jazz Thieves which are by no means just musical fillers. Rich in multilayered sound and providing the perfect interlude from the strong lyrical content of the album, offering a kind of place of reflection in the total album experience.

For me, the album is one of the most cohesive and strongest projects of their 37 year career, to date. It offers strong, spunky base lines coupled with multilayered strands of musical content which “just work”, and thoughtful lyrics with a determined vocal delivery.  From the pure beauty of Love Thieves and Home to the foot-tapping strength of Barrel of a Gun and Useless to Sister of Night which cleverly manages to encompass both strength and beauty.

“Sister of Night, when hunger descends,

And your body’s a fire, an inferno that never ends. An eternal flame, that burns in desire’s name”

I view Ultra as the postlude to their finest hour, which was of course 1990’s Violator.  Ultra may have been Depeche Mode’s ultimate nemesis back in the Nineties, but twenty years on and having just released their fourteenth studio album, having saved them then, it can now be viewed as their greatest reward.

❉ Ange Chan is a poet and novelist.  Her fourth poetry collection “Fame; What’s Your Name?” and her second novel “Baby, Can You Hear Me?” were both published in paperback and Kindle in 2016.  Her third novel will be published in 2017. 

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