Depeche Mode, ‘Memento Mori': Album Review
The pieces were already in place for Depeche Mode's 15th album, Memento Mori, before co-founding keyboardist Andrew Fletcher died in May 2022. That includes the LP's title, which translates to "remember death." Yet a dark shadow hangs over the record regardless of the timeline; everything just seems to hang so much heavier now. But the band – pared to core members Dave Gahan and Martin Gore – has sought comfort in that same darkness for more than four decades.
It doesn't take much more than a quick scan of track titles to note the air of mortality in Memento Mori: Songs about ghosts, souls and death are all over the album, which was recorded amid COVID limitations with just Gahan, Gore and producers James Ford and Marta Salogni. Even Gahan's deep, shadow-trawling voice seems to have darker, blacker hues now. "Time is fleeting," he sings in "Ghosts Again." "Everybody says goodbye." Depeche Mode's catalog is filled with such sentiments, but they've rarely sounded this immediate and necessary.
The first noises heard on the album blur the line between life and death. Shrouded in buzzes and hums, skipping heartbeat drums lead off "My Cosmos Is Mine" at a pace more suited to a funeral procession than a celebration of the living. "Don't stare at my soul," Gahan sings over the ghostly backward voices haunting the backing track. "I swear it is fine." It's a common thread heard in Memento Mori: ghosts, souls and the mourning of loved ones.
Throughout, dying angels turn up in "Wagging Tongue," the Gore-sung "Soul With Me" makes peace with the inevitable ("I'm ready for the final pages") and the chorus on "People Are Good" consists solely of the repeated, "Heaven help me, heaven help us." Depeche Mode's previous album, 2017's Spirit, suffered from some ill-fitting turns toward the political. There's little of that in Memento Mori. For the most part, this is classic band territory – moody goth draped in familiar lyrical subjects, now also informed by a world-stopping pandemic.
Gore's music occasionally lifts the spirits. "Ghosts Again" slips into tinkling '80s synths that uncover the resolution and happy acceptance of moving on; the clattering but melodic "My Favourite Stranger" recalls mid-'80s hits like "Never Let Me Down Again" and "Behind the Wheel." Not all of it works: "Don't Say You Love Me" comes off like the result of a ChatGPT quest to write a Depeche Mode song, and "Caroline's Monkey" unsuccessfully juggles too many sounds and metaphors during its four-plus minutes. But Memento Mori, informed and guided by death, is the most committed Depeche Mode has sounded in years. Their late bandmate would be proud.