March 22nd, 2015

Policy of truth

Alex left a CD of the 1990 Depeche Mode album Violator in our car a couple days ago, and I played it out of idle curiosity.1 Holy crap.

I'm embarrassed to say that I don't think I've ever really made a point of listening to this band -- but I'm trying to be more honest about this kind of thing, so there it is. I'd heard the live version of the song "Stripped" on the Say Anything soundtrack, which I have somewhere on cassette; I know I listened to that a few times, probably because it came right after "In Your Eyes" on the tape. I distinctly remember appreciating, as a teenager, what the liner notes by Joey Carnuba had to say about Depeche Mode: "These guys get applause for interesting chords." And I had heard some of their other, better-known songs here and there, never exactly realizing who the artist was. But I had never listened to an album from start to finish.

Anyway, I played the album a few times through and then went looking for more versions of the songs. Here is a circa 1993 live performance of "Policy of Truth" that I've probably watched and listened to thirty times today. I like the way the live arrangement emphasizes how the unforgettable main riff is just six notes -- six notes that have been burned into my brain since I was about nine years old, mind you; it's just that I didn't know until a few days ago that they were from this song -- and that the pitch-bendy bit that follows that is actually coming from a different instrument. Not that it's at all obvious what instrument, or even what "instrument" means in this context. If I had to guess, I'd say the six-note riff is being played live on the keyboard (in the video, you can see Martin Gore, the songwriter, playing it a couple of times -- he's the fellow with the sparkly silver outfit and blond mop of hair at the keyboard in the center back); the pitch bend might be a keyboard pitch wheel or it might be a guitar sample being triggered from another keyboard, but who's to say?

I'd love to be able to understand what is happening musically at 0:44, just after the first instance of the main riff followed by singer Dave Gahan's gleeful almost-involuntary "Hey!" yelp. Right after that, more drums come in, but as that is happening, there are a couple of chaotic cymbal crashes that sound like a spontaneous response to Gahan before the new, louder beat locks in. How does that even work?! Nobody up there is playing drums, as such! It's all keyboard-triggered samples -- isn't it? How did they get it to sound spontaneous? That's the first point in the song where I feel like something great is happening here.

The whole rest of the song sounds amazing (bzzt! bzzt! bzz-bzz-ba-bzz-bzzt!; the vocal octave doubling!), but the really off-the-hook atmospheric shit starts happening at about 4:25. There's a bit at the very end where Gahan turns his back to the audience and towards Gore and holds his arms out, dancing. This could be construed as Gahan showing off his ass for the audience, and yeah, honestly, it's probably a little of that. But I like to read it more as an act of ha-ha-only-serious Martin Gore worship. Anyway, I recommend this video if you enjoy electronic music from the early 90s, or boys in collars, or if you want to maybe wake up an old part of your brain.

  1. I think this story might explain something about why it is that, in 2015, I still really appreciate albums as physical artifacts. It's easier to stumble over them (literally stumble, sometimes!) that way, and stumbling can be serendipitous.