Three years into the pandemic, practically everyone is grappling with some sort of loss. The circumstances are individual, of course, but we’re basically all facing the same questions: How do you grieve without letting grief destroy you? How do you honor the memory of departed people and vanished places while still pushing forward into new chapters? How do you find strength and support, and how do you come to terms with your own mortality? And once you’ve taken that step, where do you direct that energy?
Those questions have also flavored the discourse surrounding Depeche Mode’s 15th studio record, Memento Mori (out last month via Columbia/Mute). Keyboardist, bassist, and founding member Andrew Fletcher, who’d been involved in workshopping and demoing material for the album, died after suffering an aortic dissection six weeks before it was recorded. The band’s 2023 world tour, which kicked off March 23 and arrived at the United Center in Chicago on April 5, is their first without him.
Formed in Essex, England, in 1980, Depeche Mode grew out of a local scene to become one of the biggest bands on the planet. You could call them electro-pop, but it’s more accurate to say they’ve devised their own musical language, with an impressively broad influence. A walk through the generation-spanning United Center crowd suggests that current and former subcultural freaks—club kids, punks, metalheads, and goths unite!—are bonded in faith and devotion with mainstream music fans.
After multi-instrumentalist Alan Wilder left Depeche Mode in 1995, for decades the group’s core trio was multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and main songwriter Martin Gore, front man Dave Gahan, and Fletcher. During the early days of the pandemic, life separated them, but they eventually began writing new songs—including some collaborations between Gore and Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs. Fletcher died on May 26, 2022, and Gahan and Gore decided to soldier on as a duo. They went into the studio on schedule six weeks later to face the music together—and to face the pain of losing their friend.
The intensity of that experience, which Gore and Gahan say has improved their own relationship, can be felt throughout Memento Mori (whose title is Latin for “remember you must die”). It contains some of the most compelling work Depeche Mode have done in years, including lead single “Ghosts Again.” The album’s themes are well-trodden (death, love, spirituality), and sometimes its tracks nod deliberately to the band’s previous output, but it never feels stale.
Some critics have wondered whether the familiarity of Memento Mori could make attracting new fans (as opposed to just pleasing old ones) more difficult for the band. That’s a fair question to ask about any artist with this sort of longevity, but Depeche Mode don’t seem to need to concern themselves with it—not while music supervisors in movies and TV are doing so much of the work. “Never Let Me Down Again,” from Depeche Mode’s 1987 album Music for the Masses, recently appeared in HBO’s The Last of Us, and their peppy 1981 breakout single “Just Can’t Get Enough” hilariously scores the bear-chases-ambulance scene in the new Cocaine Bear.
Even more memorably, of course, “Just Can’t Get Enough” became part of a viral meme in 2017 when it was used to soundtrack a video of white supremacist and Depeche Mode megafan Richard Spencer getting punched in the face. Gahan denounced the news of Spencer’s fandom by calling him a cunt. “I think over the years there’s been a number of times when things of ours have been misinterpreted,” he told Billboard. “Either our imagery, or something where people are not quite reading between the lines.”
The band’s influence also continues to spread via the work of emerging and underground artists. Minsk darkwave trio Molchat Doma cite Depeche Mode as an inspiration, and last week they packed the Riviera with throngs of youthful goths—which has convinced me that I would’ve seen an even stronger Gen Z presence at the United Center if tickets had been cheaper. (Thanks to Robert Smith of the Cure for calling out Ticketmaster.) Once you get a taste for this kind of music, it’s hard to shake—just ask the 23,000 or so ecstatic fans who turned out at the United Center.
Wednesday’s show was bittersweet, with the space onstage where Fletcher’s keyboards might have stood conspicuously empty. But Gore and Gahan took care to make it a celebration too. They opened with material from Memento Mori. Though the massive, heavy “My Cosmos Is Mine” might have confounded people anticipating a dance hit right out of the gate (or who hadn’t heard the new record yet), its dark, bluesy pulse, spacey electronics, and Space Oddity-style ruminations on life beyond Earth felt like the band’s way of inviting us along for this new leg of their journey. But even fans who wanted pure escapism rejoiced when they broke into 90s classics “Walking in My Shoes” and “It’s No Good.”
At age 60, Gahan remains magnetic; his graceful gestures and frequent twirls seem to belong to the theatrical world, while his playful ass shaking, hip gyrations, and leaps onto the drum riser ground him in rock ’n’ roll. Gore shines whether he’s behind the keys or out in front shredding on guitar. Turned into a four-piece onstage by longtime touring drummer Christian Eigner and multi-instrumentalist Peter Gordeno, Depeche Mode were so tight I couldn’t help but imagine how powerful they’d be in a small club.
One of Depeche Mode’s foundational strengths is their exploration of dynamics: loud and soft, light and dark, good and evil, reverent and carnal. That’s enhanced in a live setting, where Gore’s sweet, angelic tenor provides a stark contrast to Gahan’s emotive baritone, which shape-shifts between deep croons and devilish hard-rock snarls. The carefully curated set list flowed seamlessly between old favorites (including the always-relevant anticapitalist jam “Everything Counts”) and more recent material. Some fans may have come for nostalgia, but Depeche Mode are no nostalgia act.
United Center’s gargantuan space fit the band’s most outsize material (such as the seismic “I Feel You”), but Depeche Mode also managed to make the impersonally vast venue feel as intimate as a small theater, especially on their stunning rendition of “In Your Room” and a stripped-down version of “Condemnation.” Gahan and Gore performed the latter with nothing but vocals and guitar, standing on a narrow platform that jutted out from the stage—and they ended the song with a bow to each other and a hug.
The band didn’t often speak to the crowd between songs, letting the music and video art do most of the talking. Did anyone not choke up when they dedicated “World in My Eyes” to Fletch as his image lit up the stage’s massive screens?
By the time Depeche Mode launched into the final songs of their encore (“Never Let Me Down Again” and “Personal Jesus”), they’d proved that despite ups and downs and a heartbreaking loss, they remain vital more than four decades into their career. It’s like they were telling us: remember, you too will die, so make your time count.