Albums Revisited: Depeche Mode ‘Ultra’ Turns 20. Depeche Mode’s 1997 album has been maligned as one of their weaker releases. It’s time to set the record straight for its 20th anniversary.
I saw Depeche Mode in concert last week. The set list was varied (pulling largely from new album Delta Machine) and it was nice to hear Barrel of A Gun and Home. Both songs were from their 1997 album Ultra. The band doesn’t often revisit Ultra given the lukewarm reception it had upon its release.
To say that Ultra had a troubled gestation is an understatement. Depeche Mode were in free fall; Alan Wilder had left the band. And singer Dave Gahan’s heroin addiction was so severe he almost died from an overdose.
Fans were wondering if the band were in their death throes.
But bandleader and songwriter Martin Gore soldiered on, even if this proved difficult without Wilder. He had been the group’s sonic architect and song arranger, molding Gore’s exquisite dark pop song craft into shape alongside producer Flood on albums like Violator and Songs Of Faith And Devotion.
So to start fresh, Gore turned to producer Tim Simenon (Bomb The Bass) to help fill in the sonic gaps. And with Gahan entering rehab things got back on track, with his vocals improving over the course of recording (they’d been ragged from his addiction).
If there’s any marked difference between Ultra and earlier albums, it’s a more subdued feel. There’s nothing as raucous as Personal Jesus or I Feel You. In its place are oceanic bliss in tunes like The Love Thieves and It’s No Good.
And whether intentional or not, Gore’s lyrics seemed to pick up on Gahan’s troubles throughout the album, reinforcing its melancholy feel (and perhaps a passive aggressive dig for Gahan causing so much turmoil). Take the lyrics from the smoldering first single Barrel of A Gun:
A vicious appetite
Visits me each night
And won’t be satisfied
Won’t be denied
Overall, Ultra is stately and lovely. Home is one of Gore’s finest vocal performances and features one of his best guitar solos. The string-laden synths offered a wonderful grandeur.
But for whatever reason, Ultra was largely maligned by critics. Most reviews claimed it sounded uninspired, muddled, and fractured.
My feeling is that they many critics wanted to use Gahan’s drug problems and Wilder’s exit as an excuse to write the album off. There always seems to be an impulse to kick a successful artist(s) while they’re down, and this provided the perfect opportunity.
Ultra was also released in the heyday of techno, and many felt the band were playing it safe by not experimenting more with their sound (although Gore did cop to admiring trip-hop group Massive Attack, but it’s a testament to his song-craft that he’s never overly blatant with his influences).
But Depeche Mode have always been a cottage industry unto themselves. They went dark while other synth pop groups got sappy. And Gore’s guitar playing gave them further separation from their contemporaries of electronic pop at the time. They work at their own pace and their own stylings, and Ultra was no different.
One of the album’s strongest songs is Freestate. The ghostly slide guitar and a shuffling beat offers hypnotic counterpoint to Gahan’s impassioned vocals;
Step out of your cage/And onto the stage/It’s time to start/Playing your part
Could this be another dig at Gahan to get his shit together? If so, it certainly sounds like he took it to heart. It’s a masterpiece of shadowy drama.
So for all the fans and critics who wrote the band off after Wilder left and claimed the band had peaked? They’re just flat-out wrong. Ultra isn’t just a transitional record. It’s not a difficult album. It’s one of Depeche Mode’s finest, even more impressive given the strain they were under during its creation.
It proved they could survive without Wilder just like they survived when Vince Clarke left in their early days. That they’re still going strong in 2013 shows they’ve always been in it for the long haul.
With the band embracing more of their material live, perhaps Ultra is finally getting the respect it deserves. If you’ve previously written it off, give it a listen.
If you’d like to own Ultra on iTunes or remastered on CD from Amazon you can order it below: