Review Summary: After the departure of Vince Clarke, Depeche Mode as we know it were born. But without a clear sense of direction their second album was a rather mixed effort.
When Vince Clarke left the band in late 1981, many fans and critics thought it was the end for Depeche Mode. Vince Clarke was the driving force behind the band for first year of their career, writing almost all of their debut album Speak & Spell (Martin Gore wrote 2 songs). His simple yet infectiously catchy Synth melodies and sometimes gay lyrics (Boys Say Go and Whats Your Name?) dominated Speak & Spell. With hit singles such as New Life and the classic Just Can't Get Enough, Speak & Spell brought Depeche Mode overnight success and established them as cool young leaders of the Synthpop movement. Im sure nobody could have predicted where the band would go next...
On their second album A Broken Frame, Martin Gore was forced into songwriting duties. The band felt it was very important to move on from Vince Clarke and prove they could carry on without him. Martin had some experience writing songs already, starting when he was around 16 and carrying on through the following years. When he took up songwriting duties in Depeche Mode, he already had a few songs he had written when he was younger but only had 5 or 6 months to produce 10 songs for A Broken Frame. This short amount of time and all the pressure the band faced meant the songs that made the album were rushed, varied and hit and miss at times. A lot of the songs never reached their full potential and this is why many say that A Broken Frame is the weakest Depeche Mode album. But i couldn't disagree more, i think A Broken Frame is way above the teeny Pop sound of Speak & Spell and full of charm and character.
Whilst im on a downer though, ill draw attention to the rather shabby production that dominates the album. It sounds dull and lifeless at times and is certainly not one of the albums strong points. On a more positive note, it gives the album a rather dark and intriguing atmosphere, but it's no Black Celebration. Another negative point is that Dave's vocals are a little average compared to latter DM albums. It's true that the album doesn't contain his best vocal performances, but the murky production doesn't help his voice at all. It just lacks the power and intensity it has on other DM albums. What else is not great? well, in my opinion, there are 2 songs on the album that are far weaker than the rest and on top of this they don't fit at all. The first (and best) of these more Pop sounding songs is The Meaning Of Love, which was released as a single. Compared to the other songs on A Broken Frame, it sounds like something off Speak & Spell and doesn't fit the darker atmosphere of the album at all. It has terrible corny lyrics and cheesy melodies to boot, but it is actually a pretty catchy and fun song. If one is in the right mood i suppose it could be enjoyable at times, but what really is bad is the other turkey on the album. A Photograph Of You is almost up there with What's Your Name in the Depeche Mode hall of shame. The lyrics are just dreadful "what good is a photograph of you, when all it does is make me feel blue" and the Synth sounds that play the melodies sound laughably cheesy like what you'd hear on an arcade game. And just when you think it couldn't get any worse it has a horrible cringe worthy middle 8 where there is an ultra cheesy whistle melody. Yuck, thank goodness its only a short song!
By now i bet your wondering why on earth iv given A Broken Frame a high rating after being on such a downer? Because, despite it's flaws, the good points by far outweigh the bad points on this album. The album opens with the classic Depeche Mode single Leave In Silence and this song sets the dark atmosphere thats prominent throughout the album (minus the 2 mentioned songs). Leave In Silence was a landmark for Depeche Mode and was the beginning of their dark phase, with its haunting minor key Synth Bell chords, punchy baseline and great lyrics about ending a relationship. When released, critics were baffled by the bands sudden plunge into darker songs and labeled them 'Depressed Mode'. With Leave In Silence, Depeche Mode changed for good and their following albums would be much darker and use lusher, more complex arrangments. Following the classic which opens the album comes what is, in my opinion, one of the bands most underrated songs. Starting nursery rhyme like, My Secret Garden grooves along to a catchy octave jumping baseline, with simple catchy melodies coming in on Synth Brass and Bell like sounds. The lyrics are cool too, unusually ambiguous for Depeche Mode and about some sort of garden not been secret anymore. A very cool and enjoyable song that deserves much more attention.
After a very strong first couple of songs, the album becomes more minimal and experimental with the following song Monument. This short bizarre song is very dark and minimal, but the few sounds that are in it dominate it. It has a simple TR-808 pattern running throughout and a very simple baseline, but simple and unsettling melodies come in at places and keep you hooked. The vocals sound extremely dark and have a flanger effect on them, again very experimental. After this short dark little number, you get one of Depeche Modes greatest ever instrumentals. Nothing To Fear is upbeat and has a wicked bouncy baseline that makes you want to tap your foot. The Melody is so catchy and makes you want to hum along or simply sticks in your head, whilst some very beautiful Choir and Bell like sounds provide a darker feel to the song. The song keeps transposing up as it goes on and different melodies are introduced gradually, so you by the end you get a phenomenal climax to the song. This really is one of the best instrumentals Depeche Mode have ever done, and an amazing piece of electronic music.
Next comes the albums first single, the classic See You. This song has pretty cheesy lyrics in the verse and chorus but redeems itself on the middle 8 where it concludes people are basically the same. A strong baseline, haunting choirs and a simple 5 note Synth Bell hook make this song memorable and thoroughly enjoyable. Next is probably the darkest song on the album and one that could certainly be described as depressing. Satellite is an unusual and unique Depeche Mode song in that its got a Ska rhythm to it: off beat Synth Brass chords and a groovy walking baseline. There really isn't anything else like this in the DM's discography and i am very fond of this bizarre little experiment. The lyrics are fantastic and show Martin Gore getting darker and more meaningful "Gonna lock myself in a cold black room, gonna shadow myself in a veil of gloom". "i will function, operate, i will be a satellite of hate". Martin did a great job on the lyrics here. Next comes The Meaning Of Love, i wont ramble on about it and be on a downer again so read what i said earlier in the review for details on this one. After this cheesy Pop moment comes the even cheesier A Photograph Of You. Again, iv ranted long enough about this one earlier in the review.
A Broken Frame ends on a real high, level to the high it started on. The last two songs need to be heard together and are two of the most beautiful songs Depeche Mode had put out at this point of their career. First comes the strangest and most experimental song on the album, the charming Shouldn't Have Done That. It sounds rather like a campfire song and is very minimal, based around a catchy vocal line with powerful harmonies and a ultra minimal rhythm of tom drums and (real) clapping (courtesy of Blancmange, who were recording next door). It has a dreamy middle 8 where the rhythm drops for a short while whilst a music box like sound plays some beautiful arpeggios, accompanied by sound effects like a baby crying. The lyrics are well weird too, and follow a boy growing up through nursery to being a politician. Rumour has it, the lyrics are about Hitler: "Small boy and his infantry, marching around so naturally, shouldn't have done that!" "Leaves school to follow his ambition, knows what he wants, to be a politician, shouldn't have done that!". The song fades perfectly into the album closer, which is a fan favorite and one of Depeche Mode's greatest songs ever, the mighty The Sun And The Rainfall. Almost an upbeat electronic ballad, the song is carried by a juicy octave jumping baseline, and upbeat drum rhythm. The melody is very infectious and the Synth Bell and Choir sounds that provide the hook are gorgeous. Martin wrote some really meaningful lyrics to this one which describe a relationship as unpredictable, like the sun and the rainfall. "You are the one i like best, you retain my interest, your the only one, if it wasn't for you, don't know what id do, unpredictable like the sun and the rainfall". Dave's vocals are great on this song too, and capture a great emotion that makes the fantastic lyrics stand out. This is, without a doubt, one of of the best DM songs and the perfect ending to A Broken Frame.
I started this review off by getting the negative points out of the way first, so i could tell you how charming and beautiful A Broken Frame really is. It may be hated by many and is certainly not one of the bands best albums, but it is still a good album that deserves much more attention.