Review Summary: Depeche hit the big time with a mellow and sophisticated album that demonstrates a band comfortably matured into its own dark sound. Not a weak moment on the whole disc, superb.
With an album title like 'Music for the Masses' it would seem an incredibly pretentious statement on behalf of the band if the songs weren't up to scratch. Thankfully, the 10 tracks that appear on Depeche Mode's sixth studio album, 'Music for the Masses' most definitely are. Whilst a great number of popular British bands that were recording synth-pop around the early 80s had begun to decline in standards (or disappear altogether) by 1987, Depeche only kept on getting stronger.
There's an air of sophistication throughout the album, suggesting Depeche had grown and refined their sound over the seven years they been together to feel comfortable and confident enough to release subtle and suggestive synth-pop tracks like 'Behind the Wheel'; that didn’t need to rely on totally obvious lyrics or annoyingly catchy synth riffs to deliver its intention.
If you pour over the Basildon boys' catalogue up to 'Music for the Masses', you'll see they did exactly that. Starting out as rather awkward sugary-sweet synth-poppers (Vince Clark's influence draws almost equal amounts of credit and disdain, depending on whom you ask) before moving into a lovable, yet cluttered synth/industrial pop phase, and more recently, darker-than-a-black-hole territory with 1986's 'Black Celebration', its clear to see that Depeche Mode have continually grown and adapted their sound into an evermore consistent wave of darkly compelling synth tunes.
Such sophistication is felt throughout, not just on the aforementioned 'Behind the Wheel' (which takes its time building up to Gahan's baritone vocals, with a simple rhythm that gains more and more elements as it ticks along), but also on tracks like 'The Things You Said'. A Gore sung, low key number, it doesn't need a fast, infectious beat to satisfy - it gains attention by placing the focus on feather-soft vocals and touching lyrics aided by an atmospheric and lush electronic melody.
Even on more deliberate attempts at chart success like 'Strangelove', it retains the bands integrity featuring a slow, deliberate tempo and hints of a darker side, with lines like "There'll be times when my crimes will seem almost unforgivable, I give in to sin because you have to make this life liveable". It isn't an easy or cheap love lyric - it's subtle and considered, opting to suggest, rather than to lay itself bare.
There's an abundance of other worthwhile moments on 'Music for the Masses' such as 'Sacred' displaying its mellifluous, exotic hooks, or 'Nothing' - perhaps the most aggressive track on a relatively mellow album, with pounding drums, droning synths and a catchy chorus.
Depeche Mode's trademark darkness is not ignored either, as 'Little 15' explores gloomy territory, beginning with a simple yet sombre synth riff and ending on a flourish of electronic orchestral whirr as Gahan sings in a stirring and mournful fashion. 'I Want You Now' is as equally shadowy, with an odd breathing intro and fraught lyrics about a desperate need to obtain someone. There are even a few hints at what Depeche would do on later albums like Violator, with the opening track 'Never Let Me Down Again' starting with a guitar riff that drifts in and out of the melody.
With 'Music for the Masses', Depeche Mode showed the world that they had grown extensively from their upbeat, gleeful synth-pop roots into a sophisticated, refined and moody quartet, that produced dark and compelling electronic music. Quite literally in fact, as the album turned out to be bands most successful effort so far, gaining them a growing fan base not just in Europe and the UK, but also 'across the pond' in the US. A consistently sublime album filled with understated and absorbing DM classics.