A triumphal arch dominates the stage set of Depeche Mode’s tour. The giant M stands for Memento Mori – the title of their 2023 album, widely hailed as a return to form. But that monumental M is also for Mode. Two years ago they were a band under existential threat, when founder member and keyboard player Andrew Fletcher died of heart failure. Eye-wideningly, much of the latest album’s concern with death had already been established by chief songwriter Martin Gore some time before Fletcher’s passing.
Currently, Depeche Mode is in the second year of their global tour, delivering powerful performances and thought-provoking songs about the imperfections of humanity. On the first night of their fourth leg, they bring an energy and passion to the stage. Lead singer Dave Gahan, with his strong vocals, often twirls around and his dramatic shirt cuffs bring to mind those of Dave Vanian from The Damned, but with a more luxurious designer touch.
Rephrased: Gore, confidently sporting his signature mohawk and black nail polish, alternates between playing keyboards and a semi-acoustic guitar on stage. Joining him are keys player Peter Gordeno and drummer Christian Eigner, who may have a tendency to overdo stadium rock fills. It is not until later in the performance that a true memento mori, symbolizing the inevitability of death, makes an appearance. Giant screens display glitter-covered skulls (reminiscent of Damien Hirst’s work) spinning during the performance of “Enjoy the Silence” from the 1990 album Violator, with the word “enjoy” painted on them.
Instead of relying on heavy symbolism, the song takes an unexpected turn tonight, shifting from a New Order-inspired tune to a lively house piano breakdown that could have lasted even longer. The visuals for Everything Counts brilliantly amplify the song’s powerful anti-greed theme. In the music video, a mime with white gloves mimics the lyrics in a creative and artistic way, like a sign language interpreter.
The two hours of Mode music that plays out on the Greenwich peninsula, just 30 miles from the band’s native Basildon, rewards fans with a retrospective from across the band’s eras, from start to end. In with the new: the song Ghosts Again may have taken top billing as Memento Mori’s calling card, but tonight the machine hydraulics of set opener My Cosmos Is Mine and the clean lines of My Favourite Stranger stand prouder.
Depeche Mode also embrace their older material. During the encore, Gahan asks, “Are you ready to have some fun?” This leads into “Just Can’t Get Enough,” a tune from 1981 when Vince Clarke was still in the band. The song is transformed into a fantastic blend of synth-pop and polyrhythms. While in the US, the band became known for their brooding electronic rock sound, their home base of SE10 remembers when they were more like Spandau Ballet with a dark twist.
We are observing a live game of rock Jenga, where the structure is constantly changing. When a support is removed, the remaining pieces must either bear the weight or collapse. In other words, it’s like building all over again. Throughout this album campaign, it has been evident that the decision to move forward has brought Gore and Gahan closer, after years of distant communication, often with Fletcher acting as mediator.
Between 1981 and 2005, Gore was the only member of the band who wrote songs after founder Clarke left. The tension between Depeche Mode’s two most important members, who live on opposite sides of the US, led to Alan Wilder leaving the band in 1995. Both Gore and Gahan had struggled with alcohol and heroin addiction, which did not make things any easier. Additionally, Gahan had numerous near-death experiences.
Tonight, the newly acquired strength of two individuals is evident through the warm and friendly interactions among the survivors. Gahan expresses admiration for Gore’s “lovely, heavenly vocals” after he sings a few songs, resulting in wide grins and compliments. The band also pays tribute to Fletcher by projecting a changing black and white image of him during their performance of “World in My Eyes,” which was his preferred Depeche Mode track.
The large letter M on the stage could also represent Martin. Gore stops playing instruments to sing a stripped-down version of Strangelove from 1987, accompanied only by Gordeno. He then performs Heaven, a song from 2013 that has hints of Portishead’s Glory Box. Both songs offer a break from the intense themes of Default Mode, which include brooding about relationships, religion, and temptation.
If their set closer, Personal Jesus, covers that middle ground, two other canon highlights hold up the ends. Never Let Me Down Again is a compelling portrait of dependence that leads to a bout of manic arm waving from the crowd. Most assured of all, though, is I Feel You, from 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion – an unrelenting love track that swings at the same time. More than any other tune, new or old tonight, it captures Depeche Mode’s enduring lust for life.