Review Summary: If a spotty transition yields occasional genius like "Never Let Me Down Again", it's unfathomable what hitting their mark would result in next. Sure enough, there was Violator. Music for the Masses makes Violator seem much more incredible.
The album title really says it all. Here, Depeche Mode attempted to capitalize on their strengths and achieve more widespread recognition beyond small new wave circles in Britain. But while the album title blatantly states the intention for us, it's also rather inaccurate. Most of the music on the album isn't for the masses. It's mostly just for fans of Depeche Mode and avant-garde pop, and even at that it only serves meager helpings of the good stuff.
The two exceptions to this, however, are "Never Let Me Down Again" and the far weaker "Straneglove". "Never Let Me Down Again" is perhaps one of the greatest songs of all time, and one of Depeche's most unique sounding, with immediate hooks and a memorable lyric intro: "I'm taking a ride with my best friend..." Alternately dark, industrial, lively and loose, it's the one instance of the goal being achieved for this album: making something that sounds different than before, yet still works really well. The closing synth-choral swells heighten the theatricality to almost epic quality. "Strangelove" is a lesser accomplishment, but a standout in comparison with the other tracks on Music for the Masses. It's a cool mid-tempo wanderer with a groove that grows on you. It's entirely different than "Never Let Me", but in a good way. Unfortunately, none of the remaining songs come as close to those two tracks, making Music for the Masses uneven and ultimately a little unsatisfying. It also feels unbalanced; the second half has one too many meditative gothic Euro-ballads. Further incriminating evidence would be the unnecessary addition of three remixes tacked onto the end of CD editions. Sure, they actually sound pretty good, but it's not surprising that one of them is a reprise of sorts of "Never Let Me Down Again" - already the best song on the album. Shameless padding!
Violator would be Depeche Mode's next studio album, on which they would not only change their sound again but totally hone it to a new perfection. Music for the Masses, then, seems like an interesting stepping stone. In retrospect it's surprising Violator came afterwards, because Music for the Masses gives absolutely no hint as to what's next. Maybe that's because they didn't know where to go next. The band seems torn between all-out industrial pop anthems and softer experimental explorations. Granted, the instrumental "Agent Orange" is a late highlight. It's just that one envisions far more for Depeche Mode than, say, a career in film scoring. "Agent Orange" is evidence they'd be good at it. But given the conflicting directions on this album, Music for the Masses is ultimately interesting because Depeche Mode would go neither way in the future. As such, Music for the Masses is a cold, one-off relic.