And then there were two.
I’m both pleasantly surprised and deeply grateful that my all-time favorite band graced us with their 15th studio album. I don’t expect another, but I’d love to be proven wrong!
Memento Mori may not be revolutionary, but it serves as a fitting homage to their previous work and a culmination of their post-Alan sound. It’s as if the production team listed all the key ingredients of the best Depeche Mode albums for one last trip down memory lane, peppered with Easter eggs and fan service.
I imagine that after they nailed down the sonic recipe, they wrote down the song titles of their biggest hits on a piece of paper, cut out the individual words, threw them in a bag, and pulled them out to assemble “new” song titles like “People Are Good” and “Never Let Me Go,” hoping some of that mojo might rub off.
The result is familiar, comfortable, and purposely flawed like torn denim. It sounds like Depeche Mode and no one else.
You have to give them credit. They’re not resting on their laurels. While their contemporaries are playing county fairs and 80s nostalgia cruises, they’re still relevant. In their 60s!
I’m going to go out on a limb and say Memento Mori steals the title of best-produced DM album from Ultra, though you may disagree with me on both counts. The songs are simple but the sound is anything but. Every synth lead has multiple layers spread across the soundstage. Even the simplest hi-hat sample has depth and dimension.
The vocal performance and production are flawless. Starting with Exciter, I’ve heard obvious pitch correction blunders on every record until now. Martin’s vibrato is comfortably and tastefully restrained and Dave’s voice is at max richness throughout.
Dave’s lyrics may still lack vivid imagery, but for the first time, they’re melodically and harmonically on par with the rest of the album.
Best of all, the blues guitar I complained about in my Delta Machine review, and the politics of Spirit, are blissfully absent.
So why is Memento Mori such a chore to listen to?
Don’t get me wrong! I’ve come to enjoy it and consider it their best since Playing the Angel. While I’ve listened through it at least a dozen times, I never find myself hungering for another playthrough.
I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I think it comes down to the vocal melodies. They tend to follow a stepwise motion and often linger on the root and minor 3rd of the scale. Rhythmically they’re composed of mostly eighth and quarter notes.
To put it simply, the vocal melodies lack hooks.
If their aim was to craft a set of songs that they could sing on tour well into their 70s, they succeeded. The notes sit comfortably in the middle of their vocal ranges and rarely extend beyond an octave.
When I think back to the Depeche Mode melodies that captivated me the most over the years, they usually include leaps, syncopated rhythms, or both.
Case in point, “you know how hard it is for me” from “Shake the Disease,” with its sense of slowing down into that precarious leap upwards. Or the magnificent leapfrogging melody of “Question of Lust.” Or while we’re on “question” songs, the zigzagging offbeat “it won’t be long before you’ll do exactly what they want you to” of “Question of Time.”
It’s not just about vocal acrobatics though! The hook can be just a note or two, like the syncopated “it’s a competitive world” of “Everything Counts,” or the rapid-fire sixteenth notes “all I ever wanted, all I ever needed” of “Enjoy the Silence.”
The common denominator is surprise, which is in short supply on Memento Mori. It’s all so pleasantly predictable.
One exception is the prechorus of “Ghosts Again,” with its behind-the-beat syncopation that demands multiple listens to sing along confidently with. Perhaps that’s why it was chosen as the lead single!
Now that I’ve set forward a thesis, I’d like to talk a little about each of the tracks in sequence.
I worked out the chords, time signatures, and BPMs in case you’d like to record a cover version or sing along at home. I did my best to present them in the simplest way possible, which isn’t entirely consistent from song to song. If you have any questions, throw them at me in the comments below!
My Cosmos is Mine
Key of B minor, 3/4 time signature, 82.5 BPM
Chords: Bm (yeah, just the one)
Bridge: G# G# Gm Cø7/F# Dø7/F A# Gm Cø7/F# F Fm Eø Eø/A#
At first, this one struck me as an odd opener and an even odder single, but over time the rationale became clear.
The band opens the album by quite literally declaring ownership of their sonic universe, the Seinfeldian masters of their domain. Sure, it sounds like a funeral dirge, but it’s a production tour de force and a skilled bit of world-building.
The blues guitar is gone, but the essence of blues lives on in their chord progressions and melodies. The melodic contour here is evocative of Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from Porgy and Bess, which contains one of my all-time favorite rhymes: “He made his home in / Dat fish’s abdomen.”
As for the single release, my guess is that it was intended as an album teaser more than a dedicated single.
The bridge chords are the only ones on the album I’m not 100% confident in, because there isn’t much harmonic information there to work with.
Key of Bb minor, 4/4 time signature, 100 BPM
Verse: Ebm Ab Bbm
Chorus: Gb Ab Db7
Break: Bb Eb Bb Ab
On paper, this one ticks all the boxes. We’ve got our usual cast of saints and sinners, themes of defiance and redemption, and the somewhat shocking central image of an angel’s death.
What it all means is anyone’s guess, but when the bass drops in the second verse, I’m here for it. The blues/gospel influence is present lyrically and also harmonically, most notably in the chorus with its dominant 7th chord. The synth lead in the instrumental break at 1:54 reminds me of another DM track that I can’t quite put my finger on.
It’s cool to see Dave and Martin writing a song together, but I get the sense that we’re left with only what both found acceptable. Kind of like the last Tears for Fears record!
Key of A major, 4/4 time signature, 115 BPM
Chords: D | E | C#m | F#m E
I was so taken in by this one that I recorded my own cover version within 12 hours of the original going live on YouTube.
“Ghosts Again” already feels like a classic. So much has already been said that I don’t have much to add beyond two short points.
Sonically this owes a lot to Playing the Angel and “Precious” in particular, minus a touch of grit.
Harmonically the track never resolves. We never actually land on an A major chord. A metaphor for immortality?
Don’t Say You Love Me
Key of D minor, 6/8 time signature, 90 BPM
Verse: Dm C/D Bø/D C/D
Chorus: Gm A
Bridge: [Gm Dm] x3, Gm Dm A
This one uses a classic songwriting technique called the laundry list.
For example, Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic.”
It’s like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid
It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take
The formula is simple: “It’s like x, it’s like y, it’s like z.” Now you just fill in the items on the list Mad Libs style and voila, you’re a songwriter!
Another example is Sting’s “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” which follows this pattern: “You could say I lost my x, you could say I lost my y, you could say I lost my z.”
Or more recently, Death Cab for Cutie’s “I’ll Never Give Up On You” which IMHO is a blatant ripoff of the aforementioned Sting song.
Here we’ve got: “You’ll be the x, I’ll be the y.” The structure works well to deliver a chilling tale of a dysfunctional and emotionally manipulative relationship. The lyrics are rich with vivid imagery and culminate in a zinger of a last line.
My Favourite Stranger
Key of Eb minor, 4/4 time signature, 120 BPM
Chords: Ebm Gbm Bbm
I don’t know if this one is actually about Dissociative Identity Disorder, but I think of it as “the Moon Knight song.”
The narrator has a destructive alter ego that is slowly taking over his life. The sound design is dark and ominous, creating a sense of unease with cinematic strings and octave-leaping squeaks.
I’m confused as to why the alter ego would be the narrator’s favorite stranger when he obviously disapproves, but I’m probably just being overanalytical.
In case it wasn’t obvious, I haven’t scoured the internet for interviews or message board discussions about the intended meanings of the songs. I have no special insight or authority.
This song contains one of the Easter eggs I mentioned earlier, when Martin echoes the word “hands” on a high Ab at 3:10. Again I can’t quite pin it down, but I’m pretty sure we heard it on Violator.
Soul With Me
Key of A minor, 4/4 time signature, 74 BPM
Intro/Outro: C Dm Eb F7 Gm Ab
Verse: Am D Dm7 Bbm Ab Fm C (Em-F-G)
Chorus: F Em A
Break: F7 Gm Ab
When I had the idea to transcribe the chords for the whole album, I worried this song might stop me dead in my tracks. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s actually quite straightforward and elegant!
Like with previous Martin ballads such as “Home” and “One Caress,” the chords shift dramatically to accommodate a repeated melodic contour.
Lyrically it’s an outright celebration of death, with the chords reflecting each step of the journey. We start on a minor chord representing “the world’s disasters” and weave our way through different forms to ultimately arrive at the heavenly relative major.
I’d appreciate the song more if the chorus wasn’t yanked from a hymnal, but I get what he’s going for. This is one of the best songs on the album and It’s a shame that Martin didn’t get a second feature!
Key of C minor, 4/4 time signature, 112 BPM
Verse: Cm Fm Cm
Chorus: Cm Gm Cm Gm Ab Gm Ab Gm Fm Eb+
Last Chord: Db7
This one is a head-scratcher. Why are the lyrics in the third person? Why a female? We never get any clues as to what the narrator’s relationship is with the subject.
Since this is co-written by Psychedelic Furs frontman Richard Butler, I wonder if the song refers to the same Caroline who was so “Pretty in Pink” back in 1986. Forty years later, she’s a drug addict!
The phrase “forgiveness and everything” in the second verse sounds a lot like The Cure’s “with babies and everything” from “Disintegration“ (the song, not the album).
“There’s no satisfaction on Caroline’s train” strikes me as a lazy rhyme. I think “brain” makes more sense in the context of addiction.
Before We Drown
Key of G, 4/4 time signature, 90 BPM
Verse/Break: G Gm Dm C
Chorus: Bb Dm Fm Cm
After my first listen through the album, this was my favorite song and the one I chose to add to my Vocal Synthwave Retrowave playlist on Spotify.
I didn’t immediately recognize it as one of Dave’s, but over time as I familiarized myself with the colorless lyrics, there was no mistaking it.
This has to be the weakest verse on the record:
I feel so naked, standing on the shore, are you sure?
Nothing’s out there, nothing else no more, no more
“Are you sure” is completely superfluous and “nothing else no more, no more” is doubly redundant.
Even the central image of drowning makes no sense in context. “First we stand up, then we fall down” establishes that we’re standing on the ground, or possibly the shore based on the verse I just cited.
Then “we have to move forward before we drown”? Presumably if you move forward from the shore, you will drown!
Fortunately, it works better in context than on paper thanks to Dave’s excellent vocal delivery. The stellar production features some cool Martin vocal echoes that we’ve heard somewhere before.
People Are Good
Key of G minor, 4/4 time signature, 117 BPM
Chorus: Eb Cm
Bridge: F F#ø Gm F Eø Ebm
This one goes down as my actual favorite. Melodically it doesn’t have much going for it, alternating between the root and minor 3rd of the scale, but the lyrics more than make up for it.
Have you heard the acronym API? It stands for Assume Positive Intent, and it’s a useful rule-of-thumb when dealing with people online. Text and emojis can be ambiguous, so the idea is to give others the benefit of the doubt and interpret their words in the most favorable way possible.
My wife does this when I’m driving, much to my chagrin. I’ll point out some idiot who’s going 20 miles per hour in a 50 zone, and she’ll say “he’s probably just lost.” Okay, sure. And maybe he’s an idiot!
I make a habit of assuming positive intent while suspecting I’m being mocked, so I very much relate to this song.
Key of Eb minor, 4/4 time signature, 80 BPM
Verse/Break: Ebm Cb Ebm Abm
Chorus: Bbm Bb Ebm/Bb Abm
You’re probably familiar with the peak-end rule, which suggests that for any given experience, we’re prone to remember the most intense moments and the ending.
It applies to album sequencing, which is why it’s important to end with a strong track. Of course, you want to start with your best stuff. That leaves the area near the end for the weakest material.
I don’t want to be overly negative, so I’ll just say that I think the album is well-sequenced. I don’t consider this song to be a laundry list, but once you strip away all the repetition, there aren’t many words left.
One thing’s for sure: the second verse should’ve been cut in half. It really bogs down the momentum and the track is already plenty long at 4:18.
Never Let Me Go
Key of G Minor, 4/4 time signature, 136 BPM
Chords: Dm Bb Gm Ebmaj7
Bridge: Gm F Eb Bb
This one could’ve been called “A Question of Time II.” It’s got a similar style and sound, with the exception of the guitars that remind me of The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.
I rank this one above “Always You,” but there’s nothing particularly distinctive about it. It’s what ChatGPT might come up with when asked to write a Depeche Mode song.
Actually, why theorize? Let me ask, using the same title…
My apologies to Martin! ChatGPT doesn’t hold a candle to it. Still, it came up with a satisfying chorus:
Never let me go, hold me close
In this world of sorrow and loss
As the shadows start to grow
Whisper softly, never let me go
I like how it both starts and ends with the title. Go ChatGPT!
Speak To Me
Key of C Minor, 4/4 time signature, 82 BPM
Chords: [Cm Eb Ab Fm] x2, Cm | C | Fm | Abm | Eb | Cb Db | Eb
Last Chord: Ebm
We close with a Dave song, which means colorless lyrics (should’ve used ChatGPT). The only visual image is “lying on the bathroom floor.” I assume it’s a plea to God amidst the throes of addiction, but maybe I’m reading too much into Dave’s personal history.
The song itself is just three verses, but the production! The arrangement! Or should I say, orchestration. It’s truly magnificent. Like many Depeche Mode closers, this one explores new sonic territory. I’m not sure who we have to thank for this auditory delight, but they’ve outdone themselves.
With the final words “I’m here now, I’m found,” we are redeemed. Not a bad place to bring Depeche Mode’s legacy to a close.
Did you really just read that whole thing? You must be a serious Depeche Mode fan.
Some fans seem to believe that the band can do no wrong. If you’re one of them and I’ve managed to offend you, please Assume Positive Intent. I’m just one flawed and biased individual calling it as I see it.
How do you see it? Share your thoughts on Memento Mori in the comments below!
What’s your favorite song? Your least favorite? When is Alan coming back?
I’d be remiss not to mention that I’m a musician myself, putting the finishing touches on my 13th album. If you’re curious, you can hear my latest and greatest on Spotify here.
I’ve also got an entire tribute album to Depeche Mode that was recently updated with three new songs. Ever heard of “Ponytail Girl”?
Last but not least, every month I share ten of my favorite new 80s-influenced synth-driven pop tracks on my Synthwave Top 10 podcast. It’s a safe bet that we have similar tastes!
Thanks for reading! 🖤