CD Review of Some Great Reward by Depeche Mode

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Some Great Reward
starstarstarstarhalf star Label: Sire/Rhino/Mute/Reprise
Released: 2006
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Time to give credit where credit is due: Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward is one of the greatest industrial albums of all time. Bands like Nitzer Ebb, Ministry and Nine Inch Nails may get all of the credit for their contributions to the genre, but let’s put things in perspective here: When Some Great Reward was released, Ministry was still making bouncy synth-pop records that Al Jourgenson would later (wrongly) dismiss as junk, Nitzer Ebb was three years away from releasing their debut (though that debut did contain the brilliant “Join in the Chant”), and Trent Reznor was a 19-year-old pup whose first release wouldn’t see the light of day for another half-decade. You can take it to the bank that all three bands owned and studied Some Great Reward like a treasure map. Depeche wasn’t the first band to dabble in the metallic, of course, but they were the ones who brought it to Middle America. Industrial music for the masses, if you will.

There were certainly signs that Depeche would be exploring this direction on their previous album, 1983’s Construction Time Again, in songs like “Pipeline” and “More than a Party.” But the band was very much in flux on Construction; Martin Gore was still finding his voice as a songwriter, and Alan Wilder, now an official member of the band, was only beginning to show what he could bring to the band’s sonic palette. They worked through the kinks on Construction, and left their entire career in the dust on Some Great Reward. “People Are People” was the first single they recorded for the album, and the song’s hook isn’t even the verse or the chorus; it’s that percussion-loaded intro, which also serves as the song’s “solo,” of sorts. The lyric hasn’t held up terribly well, but the instrumentation still sounds remarkable.

This is also the album where Gore explored the darker nature to his songwriting. He was never the most chipper guy in the disco, but he really lets his mope flag fly here on “Lie to Me,” “It Doesn’t Matter” and “Blasphemous Rumours” (“I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours / But I think that God has a sick sense of humour / And when I die, I expect to find Him laughing”), which is still the most none-more-black song Depeche Mode has ever done. The song that roped in the females is “Somebody” (yep, it’s true: he performed the song naked during recording), the deeply confessional piano ballad that borders on sharing just a tad too much information.

Lastly, there’s “Master and Servant,” the song that launched a thousand electronic ships. From the a cappella intro to the thunderous percussion and bawdry subject matter (“Domination’s the name of the game / In bed or in life, they’re all just the same / Except in one, you’re fulfilled at the end of the day”), “Master and Servant” was the sound of the future, not just for Depeche Mode but for electronic music in general. Did you notice that they forgot to put the snare drum in the final mix from the last chorus on? Me, neither. I learned that after watching the bonus DVD.

Some Great Reward was one of the first albums to show that synth-pop could have some depth, not to mention some balls. Those who admired it may have felt that the only way to improve upon it was to go all aggro, but while that decision sold those bands some albums in the short term, there is a reason that Depeche Mode is still kicking, while Ministry is almost 15 years past their glory days. Some Great Reward wasn’t just a grand experiment in cutting-edge technology (though it was that as well), but one of the best examples of man-meets-machine that you’re likely to find.

Special Features: The CD/DVD set has the same peaks and valleys as the other Depeche Mode albums that Rhino has reissued this year. The 30-minute short film, “You Can Get Away with Anything if You Give It a Good Tune,” provides a fascinating look at how the band put the album together (including a shot of Alan Wilder recording the sound of a rock rolling on a windowsill, which would end up in “Blasphemous Rumours”), but the bonus tracks, once again, are relegated to the CD, so forget about putting “(Set Me Free) Remotivate Me,” “In Your Memory” or the remix to “Somebody” into iTunes.

~David Medsker