Depeche Mode - The Singles 1986 > 1998
Following the release of Ultra, Depeche Mode took the very wise decision not to tour. Four singles were released from this album, all of which benefited from excellent and imaginative videos, three of which were directed by their long term collaborator, Anton Corjbin. With five albums worth of singles behind them, 1998 felt like a good time to release a second singles collection, Singles 86 > 98, and to tour with a “Greatest Hits” set. Also, the original singles album 81>85 was re-packaged and re-released, with additional tracks.
Whilst they released no shortage of singles, DM were never a successful singles band. Their releases followed a familiar pattern of charting reasonably high (usually in the high teens), and then sinking without trace. For the completists, a single release could prove an expensive nightmare – the band were a firm believer in multiple formats, and with a release you could be sure there would be a 7”, a regular 12”, a limited 12”, sometimes an extra limited 12”, at least two CD releases, and maybe even a cassingle (remember those?). In the days before Amazon and HMV online, finding them was half the fun, relying on a build up of trust and friendship with your local independent record shop, hoping they might put one by for you. Sometimes, getting your hands on the extra limited release seemed quite an achievement. The limits on multi-formatting and free gift incentives now imposed may give all artists a level playing field to work with, but boy, it does take the fun out of it.
However, I don’t want to give the impression that they were ripping anyone off. Firstly, no-one is making you buy these. And secondly, the band were always very good at providing a wide range of interesting remixes, live tracks, b-sides and alternative versions across the formats. Also, often the packaging was superb. Most fans will remember the thrill at getting a copy of the Quad Mix of Enjoy the Silence, with it laser etched b-side, or the XL release of World in My Eyes with its sealed plastic case (the value instantly plummeting the moment you opened it). Not only did you have something to listen to, but often something nice to own as well.
This release though contains all the 7” a-sides for the singles released between 1986 to 1998. And I guess the point I am trying to make is that, although these songs are great, and this is a fine release, it is actually a poor representation of what actually went into a Depeche Mode single. Therefore, this release is really for the casual fan, who didn’t buy all the singles or albums and would like all these songs together. For the more devout Depeche fan, a far better purchase (all be it more expensive) would be the wonderful singles box sets Mute have released, gathering together all the tracks, mixes and b-sides from across the formats.
But what of this release. On the whole, these singles are tweaked and modified versions of the songs that appear on the albums, with one new song thrown in for good measure. The new songs, “Only When I Lose Myself” it pretty drab and uninteresting, with dumb lyrics and a mellow vocal from Gahan. Made with the same production team who worked on Ultra, there is nothing special about this song and as a single it performed poorly, far from their best work and out of place amid some of the genius on this compilation.
What this album does is show the progress of the band, from Black Celebration and onward into Ultra, which in a way represents a backward step. The songs from the first two albums do reflect the limitations of production at the time, with the sound sometimes mushy and lacking the crispness of the songs from Violator. The single release of “Behind the Wheel” though is horrific, an appalling remix by Shep Pettibone where anything interesting about the song is ripped out and replaced with horrible, squelching keyboards and a bass line that sounds like a fruity fart. After all of Wilder’s and Bascombe’s efforts, one wonders how it managed to get through quality control and released as the single version.
The four singles from Violator fare better, and sound fantastic. Personal Jesus is a riotous stomp, smashing and bashing around, whilst Enjoy the Silence is possibly a contender for the greatest pop single of all time, a beautiful piece of music, and a great vocal from Gahan.
The “Songs of Faith and Devotion” singles turn things up a bit, and again suffer from tweaks. “Walking in My Shoes” is made even messier with additional loops tacked on by Portishead, whilst “In Your Room” is made even more portentous with a beefed up remix by Butch Vig, which again fails to work. The song, lacking something to start with, sounds even emptier with the additional guitars that howl and squeal in the mix.
The songs from Ultra are pretty much left alone apart from edits for time. “Home” is brilliant, one of the few Martin Gore vocals as a single, whilst “It’s No Good” proves that DM are more than capable of a sublime pop song. Its shimmering production and an outstanding vocal from Gahan lift this track into something very special.
This compilation represents an outstanding body of work from a band that never fails to interest and entertain. Depeche Mode, although an album band, know that in essence, they are a pop group, and a pop group is only as good as their singles. Throughout their career they have always delivered the goods, and this album is an excellent representation of that.