Happy 35th Anniversary to Depeche Mode’s third studio album Construction Time Again, originally released August 22, 1983.
When you’re growing up your taste in music is often shaped by what your friends and family are listening to. For me, my older brother Ross, who had a four-year head start on life, would often discover bands and music before me and I would end up absorbing them through osmosis. I’d hear the music seeping through his bedroom walls and it would intrigue me. Some, like New Order, I would adopt a passion for, while others like his love of Einstürzende Neubauten, not so much. And some wore me down through sheer repetition that despite how much I tried to resist, I would end up being just as passionate for.
Depeche Mode was such a band.
I discovered them via my brother who I think discovered them via his friend Pieter around the Music For The Masses era. I remember being amazed by the sheer breadth of reinvention in the 12” remixes—hearing “Strangelove” 6,322 different ways had a way of it locking into your brain. So after buying my own copy of Masses and then losing myself in the rockumentary meets reality TV show brilliance of their 101 film, I began my backwards journey of discovery, buying up previous albums as soon as my pocket money would allow me.
This led me to the industrial pop of Construction Time Again. An album that, despite it being their third, always registers in my mind as their debut, perhaps because I didn’t connect with the previous two albums (1981’s Speak & Spell and 1982’s A Broken Frame) in such a strong, visceral way.
Using songwriting as my own form of teenage expression, I was drawn to artists who delivered lyrics that spoke to me. Martin Gore’s fashioning of phrases seemed to echo the same teen malaise I was experiencing. And musically, Depeche Mode were doing things with “found sounds” and sampling that was exciting and refreshing against the by-the-numbers production that was filling the airwaves at the times.
Songs like “Love, In Itself” echoed my desire for, and growing wariness of, love with such perfectly stated lines like the rousing chorus, “There was a time when all on my mind was love / Now I find that most of the time, love’s not enough / In itself.” Dammit, those words spoke to me. And musically, Depeche sounded fuller incorporating guitar into the mix of droning synths and tightly wound beats.
“More Than A Party” is a hyper trip of political disillusionment against the sounds of a demented fun fair. It’s unintentionally eerie, jarring and insanely catchy all at the same time. Perhaps not the strongest lyrically, with cringey rhymes like, “Keep telling us we're to have fun / Then take all the ice cream so we've got none,” it can come off as a little throwaway but manages to stay this side of the line.
In a similar vein, songs like “Pipeline” and “Shame” that cast their eyes on the political climate of the time hold a lot of lyrical promise, but seem to just claw at the surface. Musically though, “Pipeline” is an experiment in sampling, with the track made up through the industrial clattering and clanging of metal and steel, chains and wheels.
The crowning glory of the album is the hit-in-the-making “Everything Counts.” Reflecting on their personal experiences in the music business but casting it in a broader business-is-life theme, “Everything Counts” is the perfect symbiosis of Depeche Mode: pointed and personal lyrics, pop inspired melody, intriguing sampling and instrumentation, and raw and powerful vocals from singer Dave Gahan, supported by the softness of Gore’s own vocals. It’s catchy as hell and has a scope to it that lets it gain strength in live performances. The infectious and simple chorus with its repetitive refrain, “The grabbing hands / grab all they can” sticks in your head and becomes both the call and response in the extended coda. This is Depeche Mode perfection.
Sampling sounds wasn’t the only form of inspiration for Depeche Mode. Gore also draws inspiration from (or is that lyrically sampling) William Blake’s famed poem “Jerusalem,” which he refashions into “Told You So,” a swipe at the holier than thou politicking at the time. It’s a powerful song aided by Gahan’s vocals and Wilder’s arrangement.
Wilder’s influence on the sound and structure of Depeche Mode is also echoed in the inclusion of two songs he penned: the lamenting, ecologically inspired “The Landscape Is Changing” with its soft persuasive chorus, and the nuclear anxiety of “Two Minute Warning.” While the former can be overly preachy, the latter has one of the hookiest choruses on the album, thanks in large part to Gahan’s performance.
For all of the dower reflections that are often thrown Depeche Mode’s way, there’s always a sense of hope within any glimpse of despair. It might just be in the comfort of knowing you’re not alone feeling a certain way or in way out of the mire. This is certainly the case with album closer “And Then…” Despite the political hopelessness and fear at the time, “And Then…” presents a sense of youthful optimism that the ills of the world can be reset with a simple reboot, or more eloquently, “To pull it all down and start again / from the top to the bottom and then / I have faith, or I prefer / To think that things couldn’t turn out worse.” This final line is typical Gore in his writing, with a tongue in cheek check that he isn’t being too pious.
Construction Time again is a beautifully imperfect album. It represents some of Depeche Mode’s promise and potential (and in cases of “Everything Counts” and “Love In Itself,” it is fully realized) and shows the spark of the foursome starting to ignite. It began a run of six albums that had the band growing from strength to strength and starts the most musically consistent period in their career. It may not be the album I would point to for someone new to Depeche to be introduced to, but it is still a rewarding listen nevertheless.