Paul and I went to see Depeche Mode on Wednesday at the Barclays Center. And I think it may be our last time seeing what are purportedly one of my favorite bands
I haven’t seen Depeche Mode for years – at least three years and three albums. Part of that is the expense, because when you go see a band that big, the venues are expensive, and the stadium/arena/ampitheater experience is just not that great to begin with. Part of it, however, is the ever-present fear that one is going to go see a beloved band and it just won’t be the same.
I fell in love with Depeche Mode’s live shows on the 1999 Exciter tour, with the combination of sorrow inherent in the song material and the joy they took in performing. I went to see the 2005 Playing the Angel tour in L.A., and happily wrote a very long recap of the concert. And then we went to see the 2009 Sounds of the Universe tour at the Hollywood Bowl and it kind of felt…flat. Despite the venue, despite the band, it wasn’t the (reach out and touch) faith based experience I wanted.
The world is a terrible, shallow place, full of heartbreak and pain, misery and hopelessness, but there is still such perfect joy to be had in the music, in the singing, in the expression of those ideas. — from my 2005 “Playing the Angel” tour recap
And so I didn’t try a Depeche Mode show again until this tour. Although, to be sure I did get the best experience possible for this show, I bought floor tickets on fan club pre-sale, expensive even for Barclays, paid for with my unexpected March bonus. We skipped the opening act entirely, so we were settled in by the time the band came on, time we used to discuss the last few albums and why we just have not been able to get into them. I often wonder, is it me and my inherent laziness that is preventing me from getting into a beloved bands later albums? Or is it just that not everything a band puts out is something I am going to connect with? Is it fair for me to feel like Depeche Mode are “phoning it in” just because I’m not reacting to a “Going Backwards” the same visceral way I reacted to “Precious”? Or is it just that these albums don’t have the same intensity that the past productions did?
And then we saw Depeche Mode spend two hours performing and trying to evoke some sort of emotion in their audience without feeling it themselves. It should be no surprise that the emotional connection I expected never happened. I understand that Depeche Mode have been playing for almost forty years and can’t be expected to have the same connection with the music and the emotions and the audience that they had half a lifetime ago when I first saw them in Vancouver. Still, Wednesday’s show felt too much like a performance, like a play performed by jaded actors who have been playing the same parts for too long, but who love the spotlight too much to stop performing. The band, so joyful to share all of their cynical, depressing songs in the past, seemed to have no emotional connection with their own music. I couldn’t pick up on either the despair that drives the songs, or the joy at sharing and performing that music I saw at past shows, and the absence of both made me sad.
I can’t blame the band. It’s been thirty-seven years since Speak and Spell came out. It’s been twenty-four since Ultra. There is less time between the Erasure-and-Yaz Depeche Mode and the depressed, dark, drug hazed mid-90s band, than there is between Exciter and now. It’s a lot of time. These are humans. They’ve lived a lot. I understand that rationally, but I’m still irrationally disappointed to miss that emotional connection at a live show. (I was also irrationally disappointed that Dave Gahan has chosen to grow a pencil moustache that makes him look like a goth rock Walt Disney but that’s another sidetrack.)
You can see my house from here: Dave Gahan’s video for “Cover Me” was shot in Venice, CA. When it played on the screens at the live show, I recognized my old neighborhood instantly.
The most telling example of where the band just couldn’t make the connection for me was in the back to back pairing of “Where’s the Revolution” with “Everything Counts”. The former is Depeche Mode’s answer to the era of Brexit, Trump and populist overlords, a call back to the Beatles song with which they opened the show (The opening sound clip when the house lights went down was “You Say You Want A Revolution”, which was apparently a theme set-up) “Everything Counts” is a song from the Thatcher years, and yet it speaks even better to our current era than it does to the 1980s capitalism it was written for. As Dave Gahan asked, over and over, “where’s the revolution?”, in front of six-storey high images of marching feet and pumping fists, followed by the line, “come on people you’re letting me down,” I cringed. Depeche Mode have never called for revolution, they have only, somewhat cynically, described a merciless system, a “competitive world”. When they went into “Everything Counts”, that was the call for revolution, a relentlessly upbeat song about the evils of capitalism to remind us that the graph on the wall tells the story of it all (and the graph is very likely data from Cambridge Analytica).
Grabbing hands grab all they can, everything counts in large amounts
Depeche Mode have been a groundbreaking band for decades, not just because of the way they use their instruments, but because of the way they pushed synthpop into telling stories of the human condition and our desperate need for faith and love, our common conditions as humans. They are unlikely global superstars, a mega-band that are emotionally and musically complicated enough inspire fierce devotion in their fans, yet are approachable enough to fill arenas on tour (Barclays especially was packed to the rafters). Yet this tour, perhaps their own lyrics, from “A Pain That I’m Used To” on Angel say it best: “I don’t need to believe all the dreams you conceive / You just need to achieve something that rings true”. The Spirit tour just wasn’t something that rang true, and for that, while I still love Depeche Mode, this may not be a band that I see again live.