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Music for the Masses by Depeche Mode (1987)

When I first listened to this on cassette tape, around the age of 23, there were parts of it that left me speechless with awe, such as the songs "Behind the Wheel," "Pimpf," and "Pleasure, Little Treasure." So much of it sounded like spy music, and therefore made a perfect soundtrack to my somewhat paranoid existence, in which I routinely wondered which of my friends and acquaintances were working for the CIA or some shadowy secret organization. I had recently dropped out of college due to the inability to decide on a curriculum, and my life seemed like a big question mark. I was vaguely hopeful for my distant future, but I knew there was a long, hard road ahead. Music for the Masses seemed to reflect all of those realities in that uncertain year of 1988.

The monumental opening track, "Never Let Me Down Again," is followed with what I consider to be three of the weakest songs on the album. These originally comprised the first side of the vinyl LP and the cassette tape, and were probably thought to have the most potential for radio airplay by the band or the record company. They're not bad songs, but they don't begin to hint at the greatness of the work that follows them.

Starting around the fifth song, "Little 15," the CD begins its slow descent into brain-twisting techno-weirdness. The next track, "Behind the Wheel," starts with the sound of a circular metal object spinning to a stop, followed by an extended musical intro that conveys a mood of danger and uncertainty. The lyrics are a dark admission of indecisiveness and world-weariness: "There are times when I feel I'd rather not be the one behind the wheel. Come, pull my strings. Watch me move. I'll do anything." "Pimpf" is an instrumental that sounds like it could be part 2 of the earlier song "Little 15." It starts off with a sinister piano melody and gradually builds to thunderous intensity with the addition of orchestral and choral sounds. It would fit in nicely on a soundtrack to a movie about conspiracies.

The four bonus tracks at the end, which did not appear on the vinyl version of the album, are among the best and, in my opinion, an essential part of this CD's greatness. The quiet, mysterious instrumental, "Agent Orange," creates a mood of reflection. Then there are interesting remix versions of two earlier songs that bear little resemblance to the originals, including a highly danceable and mostly instrumental version of "Never Let Me Down Again."

The spy music vibe returns on the last song, "Pleasure, Little Treasure," probably my favorite song on the album. Rhythmic synth notes and acoustic guitars create a pulsating beat while Martin Gore sings, "Everybody's looking for a reason to live. If you're looking for a reason, I've a reason to give -- pleasure, little treasure." The message I get from this song is best summed up with the old saying, "Living well is the best revenge." Life may seem confusing and hopeless, but don't give up, because there is more going on in the world, both good and bad, than you are aware of. The song dissolves at the end into a sonic collage of backward voices and samples of what sounds like an angelic chorus. The effect is goose-bump-inducing and a perfect ending for a near-perfect CD.

A present-day listen to Music for the Masses confirms that Depeche Mode was at the forefront of musical technology in 1987, and the CD sounds as fresh and modern today as it did then. I can't think of another example, before or since, where electronic keyboards, sampling, and dance rhythms are so seamlessly integrated with traditional songwriting and instrumentation. Like all great art, musical and otherwise, this CD captured my imagination and took me to places I had never been before.

Sadly, I've listened to Music for the Masses so many times over the years that I'll probably have to put it back on the shelf for at least a decade before I listen to it again. I guess it might be time for me to check out some of Depeche Mode's other CDs.

Reviewed by Somebody 9/1/11

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