Depeche Mode’s The Singles 86-98

Ah, 1998: for goth, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Bauhaus resurrected itself for a shockingly popular reunion tour, if only to prove that its vampires ’n makeup schtick is timelessly goofy. Korn and Marilyn Manson raked in undeservingly huge wheelbarrows of cash by taking goth’s emotional open sore picking and turning the guitars up to 11. And then there was the strange case of Depeche Mode. Feted with a sincere but dreary tribute album, cited as an influence by everyone from Rammstein to the Smashing Pumpkins, everyone’s favorite bleak synthpoppers decided to play themselves as a cheap nostalgia act, releasing The Singles 86-98, double disc greatest hits compilation #2, and touring explicitly to support it.

Fortunately, Depeche Mode are pretty damn good at this nostalgia thing. After all, the band was never about jarring immediacy in the first place (People’s Exhibit #1: the senior pages of my 1992 high school yearbook were plastered with quotes from Violator, and if there’s anything less jarringly immediate than a well-chosen senior quote, I have yet to find it). Instead, the music of Depeche Mode was an introspective wallow frozen in perpetual suspension. If any band ever captured the sound of teenage Hamlets staring into the mirror, over-psychoanalyzing their own lives (Think any John Hughes/Molly Ringwald vehicle), it must have been Depeche Mode.

The catch was that, after a while, the band somehow made it all sound so terribly important. Nobody feigned profundity like singer Dave Gahan, except maybe songwriter Martin Gore, who gave him really deep stuff to sing. Like “reach out and touch faith.” Or “everything counts in large amounts.” Or, best of all, the entire glorious text of “Enjoy the Silence.”

Singles 86-98 charts the sonically meatier portion of the band’s career, beginning with “Stripped” and the oh-so-coyly named “A Question of Lust”/“A Question of Time” suite from 1986’s Black Celebration, songs that ring now as the missing link between Erasure and the Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine (the leading teenage psychoanalysis album of the pre-Manson epoch). It’s well-crafted stuff, but it’s awfully slight.

Considerably better are the tracks from the following year’s Music for the Masses, the album that featured what was then Depeche Mode’s great triumph, “Never Let Me Down Again.” An insistently surging bit of synthesized atmosphere, “Never Let Me Down Again” provides the first known example of Depeche humor, a couplet that rhymes “houses” with “trousers.”

Disc two is darkened significantly by Dave Gahan’s downward spiral into (and subsequent emergence from) suicidal depression: the highlights are the songs that seem to tear pieces out of Gahan’s own diary — lyrically and sonically. “Walking in My Shoes,” the only standout track on the moribund Songs of Faith and Devotion, plays like a Black Celebration song that actually has a reason to be dark; the excellent “Barrel of a Gun” and “Useless” from 1996’s Ultra capture an angular claustrophobia Depeche Mode had never before harnessed.

For good measure, there’s Ultra’s “It’s No Good,” the second known example of Depeche humor (Gahan played a sleazy lounge singer in the video), and a hilarious live version of “Everything Counts” in which nothing sounds even remotely live except for the crowd sing-along session.

Which leaves the last four songs on disc one, the singles from Violator. Forget “World in My Eyes:” the others are absolutely immaculate, three of the best pop songs ever to grace God’s green earth. There’s “Personal Jesus,” an assured boot-stomper: for three and a half minutes, Gahan discovers the wonders of self-assuredness. There’s “Policy of Truth,” where Gahan delivers his most definite self-excoriation over the best synth riff of all time.

And there’s “Enjoy the Silence,” a song so miraculously transcendent in its pseudo-profundity that it is profound. Words are meaningless to explain it. They can only do harm.