(Iris, “Sorrow Expert”, off Awakening. Iris are my favorite of the nouveau-synthpop bands. Anyone who likes Erasure should go get that album. Immediately. If not sooner.)
Since I have gone so far as to consider rescheduling an entire vacation to Europe around Depeche Mode tour dates, I thought I would write the entry about How Depeche Mode Became Jillian’s Favorite Musical Artist. Because it’s taken a few years for what was a passing liking to grow into all out devotion, and, thinking about it, I realized that much of my relationship with Depeche Mode’s music has dovetailed with my life. And while much of my liking is simply because I love the music, part of it has to do with my own history.
I was once a classically trained musician. I took ten years of piano. I took years of band class, concert band, jazz band, music theory. I did early electronic music composition in high school, and again in college. Not many people know that now. The only place that my musical history still surfaces is in my attraction to music with a classical keyboard base. Nine Inch Nails. Depeche Mode. VNV Nation. I always loved baroque music, especially that with slightly disconnected harpsichord in minor keys. The Pandora.com genome project picked up on that, that the songs I liked the most had syncopated beats and minor key changes.
Depeche Mode form a background noise for anyone in my general age range. I don’t think anyone born between 1970 and 1980 could go through high school without hearing at least one of the singles off Violator. But the singles I heard the most – “People are People” and “Enjoy the Silence” were never my favorite songs. Which is why it wasn’t until I moved to Seattle that I started catching up with Depeche Mode.
It was “Blasphemous Rumours” that started it. I heard it on an 80s stream one day at work, and that was it. Even for Depeche Mode, it’s overdramatic and depressing. “I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours, but I think God’s got a sick sense of humour, and when I die, I expect to find him laughing” And I, lonely and homesick, lost in the Seattle suburbs, took it as an anthem for my own misery. I picked up “Singles: 86:98” soon after that, the two-disc set that starts with “Stripped” and ends with a live cut of “Everything Counts” and covers everything from Black Celebration to Ultra, and immediately thought – why haven’t I been listening to this for years? That’s when the live cut “Everything Counts” became the song I listened to as I left Microsoft each day. The turning point of a career, the career of being insincere..
Singles was really a better crash course in Depeche Mode than a greatest hits album would have been for most musical artists. This is because Depeche Mode are a singles band. Not all good songs make it to U.S. released singles (“Mercy In You”) or made it to the Singles disc (“Halo”), but the majority of the best songs from each album do come out as radio singles. For most artists, a compilation CD will include their most commercial songs, but not their best work, but with Depeche Mode, their most commercial songs have been their best work. And while I started backtracking through a lot of the 80s goth music that year via their greatest hits compilation discs (Joy Division and New Order, Siouxsie and Sisters of Mercy), none seemed to give me as clear a sense of the band as Depeche Mode’s singles did.
That was the music what I was listening to, when I got to Texas. I hear “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Joy Division) and think of walking across Amarillo, or hear “True Faith” (New Order) and think of staring blankly at the wing of a Southwest flight over New Mexico. But the first CD I played when I bought my new car was Music for the Masses. And when I hear “Pimpf”, I think of all the times I drove across the West Texas desert, blasting that neoclassical piano as it degrades into synth. I hear “Never Let Me Down” and think of driving through Dallas, of all the different people that rode in the front seat with me across the city. I know the song is about heroin, but I still like to take it literally.
In late 1999, I started dating the former DJ Phigmeta, better known in my lexicon as Big Scary Mike. But while I had a still casual relationship with Depeche Mode, Mike loved them. I gravitated towards the faster songs, but Mike would sing the ballads in his shockingly good baritone: “Sister of Night”, “One Caress”, “Condemnation”. And for his twenty-sixth birthday in 2001, I took him to see the Exciter tour’s Vancouver date.
And that was the moment that I just fell in love. I’d never seen a band pull in an audience on a mass scale like that. Ever. I’d seen bands play shows where the audience fell into the music and the emotions, and shows where the singer tried to generate a frenzy, but I’d never seen a frontman pull in a crowd like Dave Gahan. “Personal Jesus” sounded like a prayer revival by the time they got to it, towards the end of the show, with the audience screaming along, in perfect unison, “REACH OUT AND TOUCH FAITH”. And meaning it.
The only time since then that I have failed to listen to Depeche Mode religiously was after I broke up with Mike. For almost a year, I couldn’t. The music had become too much a part of the relationship. Music had been much of what we’d shared. In the process of moving on from that relationship, I had to let go of the music. I couldn’t hear “Waiting For The Night” without feeling sick. But as I healed, and regained my own identity and my own life, I started picking the music back up again. Slowly.
I put Depeche Mode on the shelf with all other Things Goth when I came to Los Angeles. “This is it,” I told myself. “You’re going to grow up, and stop listening to mopey music. You are going to listen to indie rock and wear colors and be normal. You’ve outgrown goth.” And I can’t remember when I picked it up again, but it just sort of came back. All the mope rock. All the minor key music. Everything. It came back – and it was what I needed. I remember walking through New Orleans a year ago, listening to Iris and Depeche Mode and feeling, for once, fairly whole.
Depeche Mode have created music that taps into part of me. They have created songs that are rock and roll in minor key. They have created songs of despair that they take great joy in singing – and in hearing an audience sing. They have created music that perfectly backdrops the lyrical content, and anthems that hold up even with completely different instrumentation. But, most of all, they have just created key changes that resonate with me, sadness in fifths and sevenths, in minor inversions, that I will listen to again and again, and be just as happy hearing the hundredth time, as I was the first. Listening to music like that allows me to tap into the emotions that are the dark I need to show the light, the shadow I need to set my energy against. I’ll never be able to explain how I can listen to Precious five times a day – but I do know that, each time I hear it, it makes me happy.
And the sheer happiness I get out of the music, that is why I love Depeche Mode.