Monday, July 30, 2007


Depeche Mode changed my understanding of synth pop. Formerly, I had known synth pop the way Eurythmics, Howard Jones, Human League and Thomas Dolby fashioned it: stripped down, minimal, with plenty of negative space. (No complaints, mind you - I loved it.) Then I received a cassette tape with Some Great Reward and Black Celebration on either side.

Most of Depeche Mode's output before those two albums can also be described as stripped down, minimal, and holding plenty of negative space; I focused on Depeche Mode at the precise moment that they were elevating synthesized pop music to new levels of richness and expression. SGR and BC are landmarks because, from start to finish, they sounded new and they forced us to consider new possibilities.

In the eighties new technology allowed synthesizers and samplers to deliver more complex, more textured sound, and in most cases to do it without requiring a computer programming degree. They opened up new horizons to anyone who had the vision to explore them. And Depeche Mode (Alan Wilder in particular) most certainly did. Sound could now be sculpted for realism, for unrealism, even for surrealism, and DM reached for all of those options, often in a single song. They left behind the minimal arrangements of one percussion track, one bass track, one lead track. Songs received electronic orchestrations that seemed to expand like fractals.

Consider 'Lie to me' from Some Great Reward. It wasn't a single, and it's not as well-travelled as 'People are people', 'Somebody', 'Master and servant', and 'Blasphemous rumors' [though consider for a moment what a stunning array those four make.] But in terms of its arrangement, its sophistication foreshadows the achievements to come on Black Celebration and Music For The Masses more so than those hits. It's a remarkable piece of songcraft, even by standards as high as Martin Gore encourages us to set them.

Describing the music is difficult, since most of the sounds in 'Lie to me' aren't naturalistic. That makes the lead melody part more striking, because it bears an odd resemblance to a woodwind (oboe? bassoon?) In a technique that would become a Depeche Mode trademark, two handfuls of melodic and percussive synth parts occupy different portions of a measure or the song, creating an inflected whole that requires conscious effort to pick apart. Vocally, Dave Gahan has settled into his baritone, and he sings with new assurance and pitch control. One wouldn't necessarily expect seductiveness to come from these quarters, but it does. And then the lyrics.

"Come on and lay with me / Come on and lie to me / Tell me you love me / Say I'm the only one." Despite the way it reads, the man in this song doesn't sound like he's begging; he sings calmly, confident that he's going to get what he wants, like Kaa in Jungle Book sings 'Trust in me'. Yet this man obviously depends on his subject, even though as the verses show, he considers that one to be uninitiated and naive; he makes the classic actions-speak-louder-than-words pitch, and there's no question of the actions he has in mind. On the one hand, he offers to enlighten and corrupt his subject. On the other hand, he admits that the true power in the relationship is not his to wield. "So lie to me / But do it with sincerity / Make me listen just for a minute / Make me think there's some truth in it." Not the line we typically hear from the Humbert types.

Immediately obvious is the clever play on words: lay versus lie. But there's a more subtle, if counter-intuitive tension in the syntax of the song. The unrhymed verses are when our narrator is explaining, even condescending. The very strictly rhymed bridges are when he drops his facade and reveals his dependence, albeit restrained.

If all this isn't enough to keep things interesting, the second bridge (the last new lyrics in the song) puts a whole new spin on the song. "So lie to me / like they do it in the factory / Make me think that at the end of the day / some great reward will be coming my way." Whence the socialist critique? Now the one to whom he sings is not just the object of lust, but also the compensation for a life spent in tedious labor. The significance of these lines goes beyond the song, too; they provide the album with its title, and the cover art is a photograph of a bride and groom standing at the foot of a huge industrial building, as if at an altar.

Everything this man has said must now be reconsidered. Are his statements about action versus words, trust versus proof, truth versus deception really about this relationship at all? Is the seduction a primary or a secondary goal? Was Karl Marx ever this sexy? The entwined nature of sex and power is a theme that runs through Some Great Reward, whose subtitle, after all, is 'Life In The So-Called Machine Age', a theme addressed again in later songs like 'Stripped' and 'Behind the wheel'.

Synth-driven music has often labored under the judgment that it lacks emotional resonance, humanity, nuance. 'Lie to me' is an excellent rebuttal - it is a mysterious portrait of a man living in the midst of, and in spite of, the machines that determine his life (as well as the machines that produce his music.) Subsequent synth pop music with this kind of richness should be understood as godchildren of 'Lie to me' - the blueprint is intact in that song.

Depeche Mode official website