Depeche Mode, Memento Mori ★★★★★
When your lead singer is a recovered heroin addict who has had so many brushes with death (including heart attacks, suicide attempts and overdoses) that paramedics nicknamed him “The Cat”, calling your 15th album Memento Mori (Latin for “remember death”) might seem like bravado. As it transpired, it was not Dave Gahan who was tempting fate. Songs had been demoed and the album title already chosen when Depeche Mode keyboardist and founder member Andy Fletcher died of a heart attack in May last year, weeks before the band were due to convene in a recording studio for the first time since 2016. Fletch was the matiest, cheeriest and least starry member of the Mode, his sudden death at 60 a shock to everyone. “He was supposed to outlive us all,” lamented Gahan.
The surviving duo of Gahan and multi-instrumentalist and principal songwriter Martin Gore have soldiered on, turning Memento Mori into an elegy for their lost bandmate and hymn to their own endurance. It probably helped that it was written under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic by aging stars turning 60, so themes of mortality, doubt and faith were already deeply embedded within the work. The result is the most sombre and beautiful album of their career.
“Everything seems hollow / When you watch another angel die,” Gahan croons across a burbling stream of synths on Wagging Tongues, the jauntiness of the sounds offsetting the sentimentality of the lyric. “I’m ready for the final pages / Kiss goodbye to all my earthly cages,” sings Martin Gore (his clear tenor always an interesting contrast to Gahan’s grave baritone) on the lush and elegiac Soul With Me. “Heavens dreaming thoughtless thoughts my friend / We know we’ll be ghosts again,” sing Gahan and Gore together on Ghosts Again, where the driving momentum of electro bass, treated guitars and soaring synths convey a sense of fond adieu rather than morbid sadness.
We have long got used to the twilight of the rock and roll gods. Stranger to contemplate that even synth pop is old now, electronic music once held synonymous with science fiction futurism. Depeche Mode were amongst the first to turn the krautrock experimentalism of Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and David Bowie into chart pop, the Basildon boys quickly morphing from fresh-faced new romantics to embrace the darker gravitas of Goth and industrial rock to become the world’s first stadium electro band.
Members came and went but Fletcher was the glue who bound them together through his clubbable personality rather than musical skill. He was never crucial to the Mode sound, however, so as a rump duo (augmented by producer James Ford with some co-writing by Richard Butler of The Psychedelic Furs) nothing has really changed. Depeche have always sounded fantastic, with arrangements of clean, hard, crunching, whirring synths and distorting guitars underpinning a melodiousness rare in the electronic milieu.
What is heartening about this album is that they don’t sound jaded or defeated, nor are they trying too hard to craft hits or keep pace with the times. They have conjured a collection of really strong songs about big subjects, delivered with sensitivity and conviction. Memento Mori stands with the best of their career, a potent reminder that the underlying meaning of the Latin expression is not to fear death, but to treasure what life we have. Neil McCormick
Lana Del Rey, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd ★★★☆☆
How you feel about Lana Del Rey’s ninth album will depend a great deal on how you already feel about Del Rey. It is over 77 minutes long, and features 16 tracks of sonorous piano, soft orchestration, slow tempos, occasional tickles of trap beats, and breathily soft singing of meandering verses on her usual range of topics: bad men, good sex and whether it is possible to achieve happiness amidst the everyday superficialities of privileged American life. All of which is overshadowed by the conviction that all that is flesh will someday wither and fade. In summary: dating, f---ing, shopping and death, to be more succinct than Del Rey herself is inclined to be.
It is by far the most self-indulgent work yet of an artist who has made her career a monument to self-absorption. By using her considerable songcraft as a mirror to her own neuroses she has also held a mirror to our own neurotic times. Indeed, since struggling pop wannabe Lizzie Grant artfully re-branded herself with media-savvy panache as Lana Del Rey in 2011, she has arguably become the defining artist of the selfie-generation.
The relationship between her image and music is so tightly fashioned, it is almost impossible to judge to what extent Del Rey is style over substance, or cleverly employing style as a distraction from the true substance beneath. For an artist who maintained an aura of mystery almost unheard of in the social media age, she herself has regularly pronounced that she has nothing to hide. “They say there’s irony in the music,” she sings on Fingertips, then adds: “It’s a tragedy.” Well, there is certainly tragedy in her music. But is there irony?
“I’m not that smart but I’ve got things to say,” Del Rey teasingly proclaims on Fishtail, playing the wide-eyed ingenue again, even as the 37-year-old’s music gets increasingly sophisticated, and her image manipulation increasingly complex. “You wanted me sadder,” she sadly, sadly breathes on a sad little song about a man sadly not turning up for a date, and I wonder if there is anyone on earth who really does want her sadder? Indeed, is it possible to be any sadder than Lana Del Rey in a blue mood? Yet there is a shard of something dangerous lurking inside such sharply turned vignettes, the ice-cold vengeance of being the one to tell the story and expose the petty cruelties of modern dating.
Even as I write this review, I find I am getting sucked deeper into Del Rey’s world, considering her songs from different perspectives, beguiled all the while by her easy way with a melody, her rolling rhymes, clever turns of phrase, seductive vocals and subtle production touches. But I should also confess that the first time I listened to this album in full, my brain wanted to crawl out of my skull with boredom. The songs are almost provocatively shapeless, the pace almost daringly unhurried, the tone so subdued it sounds like the album itself is staggering about in a valium stupor. Some of the lyrics are so conversationally baggy they appear to have been improvised on the spot, notably Kintsugi (an overstretched six minute metaphor about Japanese pottery being the secret of life) and Fingertips (five minutes 48 seconds of fretting about her family and the mystery of death).
Secrets are yielded slowly, albeit if you bear with it there is usually something to pull you back in for further contemplation. The darkly absorbing, seven-minute, two-part A&W lets Del Rey bare her fangs at the judgement of women by their appearance (“If I told you that I was raped / Do you really think that anybody would think I didn’t ask for it?”) whilst the curiously titled Grandfather Please Stand on the Shoulders of my Father While He’s Deep Sea Fishing challenges perceptions of her as an industry construct, “Frankenstein’s wet dream”, whilst calling for spiritual protection for herself and her family. Opening track The Grants asserts the family theme, and the album is full of references to those she loves, and some she has lost, almost as if she is trying to cast magical spells of musical protection.
To get to the good stuff, though, you have to wade through interludes longer than most people’s songs, including over four minutes of a happy clappy preacher’s sermon that sounds like it might have been secretly recorded in an echoing church on a microphone stuffed under a pillow. The pacing of the album is dreadful, with one dawdling ballad sequenced after another. Despite the presence of hitmaking collaborator Jack Antonoff, the project cries out for objective oversight to cut through the waffle.
Rolling Stone recently hailed Del Rey as the greatest American songwriter of the 21st century. She has certainly been one of the most prolific and influential, whose downbeat Americana hip hop blend has impacted Billie Eilish, Lorde, Phoebe Bridgers and even Taylor Swift. The excesses of Did You Know That There's a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd rather puts such lofty claims to the test. It is either the sound of someone who has begun to believe her own publicity, or who has stopped caring what anyone else thinks and is determined to follow her muse wherever it wanders. There’s a fine album lurking amidst the indulgence but listeners have their work cut out trying to locate it. NMC
Fall Out Boy, So Much (for) Stardust ★★★☆☆
On their eighth album, veteran US punk pop band Fall Out Boy have stretched their vision beyond their own bedrooms and into the universal wonders of existence. Age, marriage, divorce, children, a pandemic... No wonder Patrick Stump, Pete Wentz, Joe Trohman and Andy Hurley are looking to the cosmos for comfort. There's scientific evidence that humans are partially made up of the same atomic elements as stars, so contemplating our bodies as stardust isn’t without reason.
While the band’s lyrics, as they have for 20 years, can wallow in self-indulgent, juvenile angst, there's a romantic nostalgia in hearing the noughties lads get back to their roots. Heartbreak Feels So Good layers Stump's sing-song verses over metal-style riffs, while Love From the Other Side builds into a shattering, explosive rock'n'roll grenade. The production is significantly more polished, though the blueprint for their sound is clear in 13-year-old classic Dance, Dance or Centuries from 2014.
Like the Bee Gees if they’d gotten asymmetric haircuts and worn eyeliner, there’s a disco-funk meets emo vibe to Hold Me Like A Grudge. Stump’s high-drama operatic chorus elevates a typical pop song into an experience. Then, there’s the pedestrian guff like Fake Out that is the sonic equivalent of fluff: forgettable, repetitive melodies with boring, supercilious lyrics. Ethan Hawke’s New Age-y Confucian spoken word on The Pink Seashell is a hard skip (or just delete it). On the other hand, the sea shanty-via-Star Wars grandeur of I Am My Own Muse fuses all the electric elements that were exciting and contagious about Fall Out Boy in the early years, a combination of orchestral majesty with Stump’s thrilling vocal gymnastics that is flamboyant and fun all at once.
Flu Game swaggers along on a driving, deep bass line with a relentless groove that it’s nearly impossible to shake free from. When Fall Out Boy are in top gear, they’re timeless: if only this whole album had cut some of the filler, it could have been a stellar return to form. Cat Woods
Billy Valentine, Billy Valentine and the Universal Truth ★★★★☆
Ohio-born soul singer Billy Valentine is probably best known for co-writing the 1982 song Money’s Too Tight (to Mention) with his brother John when they were a duo known as The Valentine Brothers. The track, of course, went on to be a global hit for Simply Red in 1985, while Valentine went on to work largely on film soundtracks and in musical theatre. He’s now back, aged 73, with an album of cover versions of protest songs backed by a group of jazz and pop luminaries. And it’s a peach, comprising virtuoso playing and songs delivered with the nuance and worldliness of a man in the twilight of his career.
The opening track of the album is a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s We People Who Are Darker Than Blue, from Mayfield’s last LP in 1996. The lyrics about racial pride and the dangers of inaction in the face of discrimination remain resonant. Stevie Wonder’s sarcastic You Haven’t Done Nothin’ strikes a similar tone. Valentines voice has a gorgeous Bobby Womack richness to it – it’s a joy to listen to. It would be tempting to give such an album a little too much edge, but everything about restrained and enveloping. The Universal Truth is a co-release between labels Acid Jazz and Flying Dutchman, the jazz label, and it’s beautifully curated. Legendary session musician Pino Palladino provides bass in a group that also includes renowned jazz saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and drummer Abe Rounds. Larry Goldings’ piano solo in Wade in the Water is mesmerising.
The highlight is a version of Prince’s Sign O’ The Times which gets a shuffling crepuscular makeover. It’s full of lovely details, such as Valentine’s delayed delivery of the line “it’s June” when singing about his cousin’s spiralling drug addiction. Prince already left a beat before he sang the words in his version. Valentine has the confidence to give it even more space, only adding to the song’s poignancy. James Hall
Debby Friday, Good Luck ★★★★☆
Nigerian-born, Canadian-raised Debby Friday experienced euphoric escape from a tough home life in all-night raves, warehouse parties and clubs. Those formative experiences paved the way to the decks in 2017, but less than a year into DJ-ing, the perfect storm of mental health, substance abuse and a turbulent love life blew everything up. Her healing came through DIY music production lessons via YouTube, which inspired two EPs (B----punk in 2018 and Death Drive in 2019). The Toronto-based artist evokes dark, industrial electro textures where percussion clatters, wonky beats trip over her sultry vocals, and she wickedly avoids playing by the rules. Bridges, verses, a chorus? Not here, this is a jungle.
Slow grinding beats, a train-like hiss, the clinks and clanks of industrial machinery all haunt the opening track Good Luck. “Give it what you’ve got, don’t you f--- it up,” demands Friday. It’s advice she’s certainly taken to heart. But if you feared she might be looming with a whip and certain punishment, the crooning, woozy indie-pop of So Hard To Tell is reassurance Friday has a full spectrum of emotional arrows in her quiver and she’s going to hit all her targets.
The sensuous, spiritual, hazy layers of synths, wailing guitar and falsetto (What A Man) hark to Santigold, but the slow-dive, deep pulse of Safe suggests 90s era Massive Attack. The interplay of icy, cruel synth-scapes with strangely alluring, melodic rhythms is reminiscent of Fatima Al Qadiri or Yves Tumor.
At barely over two minutes Pluto Baby has the sort of snarling, sardonic energy of Megan Thee Stallion with an obscure reference to Janet (“Miss Jackson if you're nasty”) Jackson: “I love 'em and I leave 'em be. It's Miss Friday, but only if you're nasty like that, and only if you ask me like that.” Miss Friday, you don’t need anything as arbitrary as good luck, you’ve got talent in spades. CW