Depeche Mode - “Higher Love” (Live) (dir. Anton Corbijn)
With the possible exception of Michelle Williams, I don’t think any human being has ever grown into his or her looks more spectacularly than Dave Gahan. From Revenge of the Nerds character to 100% convincing S&M sex cowboy in just a few short years, all of which occurred during the span of his pop stardom no less. I say “100% convincing” even though I’m sure any number of people (be they Anglophiles or actual English people) more familiar with DM’s dark pop peers of the day would no doubt beg to differ, because I saw how the girls who listened to DM reacted, and believe you me he had them convinced. To this day, this gif set slays ‘em.
Depeche as a project underwent a similar metamorphosis during this time, of course. It’s hardly a novel observation to note the perversity of their trajectory, how they became increasingly popular as their music became increasingly dark and, well, perverse. That’s not the story that ’80s music is supposed to tell, notwithstanding the polarity reversals of DM’s partners in bringing British miserablism to the middle-American masses, the Cure.
In addition to popularity, though, Depeche Mode’s journey from the buoyant synthpop ditties of early Vince Clarke and Martin Gore to the luminous black bedroom-cum-stadium anthems of Violator increased their vitality, in the sense that they became vital to individual listeners. As awesome as “Just Can’t Get Enough” or “The Meaning of Love” were, they were never going to be lifeline music, never going to be the kind of songs around which horny and unhappy teenagers would wrap their existence. “Enjoy the Silence,” on the other hand…
So by the time 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion rolled around, DM were one of the most fanatically followed bands in the world, and could pretty much write their own ticket — but for the fact that heavy, guitar-based alternative rock had, to a certain extent, punched it for them already. Dave Gahan famously responded by growing long hair and a beard and doing some crowdsurfing at their shows and developing some pretty bad habits, and there’s an industrial skronk to “I Feel You” that had me angrily dismissing this new sound as a rip-off of Trent Reznor just as surely as Gahan’s new beard/longhair combo was a rip-off of Al Jourgensen. (???)
Yeah, I pretty much hated Depeche Mode at the time. I hated them, I hated Morrissey and the Smiths, I hated the Cure, I hated Erasure, even. When you define yourself against other things, and you’re provided with as convenient a critical shorthand as "Kill Mother Fucking Depeche Mode", that’s really hard to resist, you know? So the lines I drew around “acceptable” precluded emotions expressed through “wimpy” English accents, for some reason. I could never quite bring myself to wall off “Enjoy the Silence,” thank god, but the rest of it was right out.
Longtime readers know how a circa-2000 discovery of glam and David Bowie effected the opening of my American mind, and soon I was listening to Violator from start to finish over and over again — in this case electroclash helped too, I’m sure — and all was forgiven. But over the past year or so I’ve become particularly fixated on Songs of Faith and Devotion, that album’s victory-lap follow-up. My dim knowledge of the album’s reception indicates that it was something of a critical and commercial let-down following the previous smash, and given the artistic and pharmaceutical anxieties Gahan was experiencing at the time that’s understandable, but man oh man do I love the simplistic brilliance of this thing.
As indicated by the title (and by the title of “Higher Love,” the song currently at issue), Songs is effectively a concept album about — are you sitting down? — sex taking the place of God as the locus of spiritual and emotional transcendence. Which sounds sophomoric, and which to an extent is sophomoric — as I’ve written at tedious length, when I was a sophomore, and for several years on either side of that besides, I really did invest as much intellectual and aesthetic energy and justification as I possibly could in that particular switcheroo.
But Gore and Gahan weren’t sophomores, they were men in their early 30s. When they were sophomore age, the music they were making was a lot different. In the intervening years they honed their craft and grew into themselves as artists and performers, while at the same time the world threw itself at their feet — so if Songs is the result, we must consider that a lot of conscious thought, effort, and decision-making went into recording these songs with these themes. Moreover, they weren’t glossing over the negative aspects of living a life with this as your guiding principle in these songs. The message of “Walking in My Shoes” is “I’m a sex pig, but if you were in Depeche Mode in 1992 you would be too.” The message of “Judas,” which still astonishes me with its candor, is that “If you love me, you will degrade yourself to prove it.” They’d considered the pitfalls and decided that yeah, they could live with them. This wasn’t a hormonal accident, this was a fucking philosophy.
"Higher Love" closed that album, and opened their concerts on the ensuing tour. I couldn’t have been more thrilled than when I discovered that last fact upon rediscovering this record, because I hear "Higher Love" and I think to myself "STADIUM SYNTH," "DIRK DIGGLER"-style. It has the simplest, and therefore the most powerful and penetrating, of DM’s big plunk-it-out-with-one-finger keyboard hooks — deliciously easy to imitate, but preternaturally assured in the hands of Martin Gore, whose ear for unpredictable melody is one of the most undervalued in pop. There’s so much space between those notes, they’re recorded with such a sense of space and drama, that they sound like a stadium soundcheck already.
When I did a search for “Higher Love Depeche Mode Live” and found this footage by Anton Corbijn (DM were his frequent muse), it surpassed my expectations. A stadium-sized blue curtain setpiece that converts the whole stage into the contents of a four-poster bed? Check. Lights that illuminate each individual member of the band like towering gods as they plunk out the song like they’re beating it into shape on Vulcan’s anvil? Check. Best of all: Dave Gahan ending the performance by turning around and wiggling his ass in the most shameless such display by a male frontman I’ve literally ever seen? CHECK.
Here is a band that knows its strengths and its obsessions, and is playing to both of them as hard as they possibly can. Depeche Mode were never a signpost of cool to me back when it counted, but now that pervy confidence reads to me like pure magic.