November 29, 2023

REVIEW: Depeche Mode's Memento Mori Tour

Depeche Mode
Moda Center
November 28, 2023

"Remember you must die," the translation of the Latin phrase memento mori, is not as bleak as it might seem. As deployed by Depeche Mode, it's an inspiring call to action: live your life. 

Weighty stuff, especially in light of the synth-pop legends' recent history, having lost founding member and keyboardist Andrew Fletcher at age 60. Fletch's sudden 2022 passing found longtime creative brothers Martin Gore and David Gahan without a tiebreaking vote, and bereft of a mediating, good-humored figure in the room. Still, it was a motivating event. The duo carried on, creating the 2023 album Memento Mori, their 15th studio effort, and their first involving an outside songwriter, Richard Butler (Psychedelic Furs). Life looked different, but it went on.

The show must also go on. Touring the globe is what Depeche Mode does best. At their Oregon tour stop, their 72nd (!) show on the Memento Mori World Tour, Gore and Gahan were in fighting shape, bringing longtime colleagues Peter Gordeno (keyboards/bass) and Christian Eigner (drums) along for two hours of surging catharsis. Fletch, given a moving tribute during "World in My Eyes," would have approved.  

A mysterious pendulum of joy and pain, getting through this thing called life. While they've always operated on a grand scale sonically, lyrically and emotionally  Depeche Mode's ethos may best be described as "widescreen"  it seems these Basildon, England lads David (61) and Martin (62) recognize the stakes more than ever now. 

Fletcher's departure clearly heightened Depeche Mode's sense of duty, and it permeated every moment of their two hours onstage. Gahan, deeply invested, was a strutting/posing/spinning live dynamo, and with his red vest and slicked-back hair, he recalled both the Emcee from "Cabaret" and Bono's Zoo TV tour character Mr. MacPhisto. Inimitable and magnetic as he floats around the stage, the frontman somehow appears both earthbound and weightless, striding about and waving his arms — he's like an inflatable air dancer outside a car dealership. Meanwhile, Gore, with his signature blonde hair and sleeveless look, was a reliable anchor, alternately hunkered down behind synth banks, playing guitar, and singing. Here are two lifelong friends and collaborators, still at it, still concerned with style and substance.

Attending a Depeche Mode concert is akin to being a light bulb — by taking your seat, you're twisting into a socket, and awaiting the Gore-Gahan power company to turn the current on. Performing in front of a giant, incandescent "M" with a high-def video screen, the quartet delivered that high voltage repeatedly. There was the adrenalizing triple-shot of "Walking in My Shoes," "It's No Good" and "Policy of Truth"; the reverberant, gothy "Black Celebration"; and Memento Mori's "My Favourite Stranger." The latter is a nasty bit of post-punk business, and found Gore and Gordeno forcefully playing guitar and bass, while Gahan and Eigner joined them in what felt like sonic Joy Division cosplay.

For all the varying intensity, Depeche Mode also found opportunities to loosen things up and have fun: they switched places (more on that below), added patient intros that initially obscured certain songs' identity, and extended classics like "Enjoy the Silence" with rhythmic breakdowns that kept the party going. As members of a world-beating, stadium-filling juggernaut, these guys could easily be aloof, but they truly came off like gracious dudes throwing a party for 20,000 people.

The charismatic Gahan is naturally Depeche Mode's focal point, but Gore had some top-shelf moments in the spotlight. The first was his lead vocal performance of "Strangelove" while Gahan was offstage on a quick break (a nifty role-reversal that underscored Martin and David's equal footing in the band). The second was a perfect rendition of "A Question of Lust"; when Gore crooned "It's a question of not letting what we've built up crumble to dust," that lyric held more meaning than ever before.

On the subject of Gahan and Gore, they were chummy throughout, interacting in a way that should reassure fans about Depeche Mode's future. They even high-fived each other at one point with both hands (is that called a "high ten?"). The most touching moment between them, however, was their duet on Violator's "Waiting for the Night." Standing together at the end of the ramp that jutted into the crowd, they serenaded the crowd as much as each other, and embraced at the end. One could imagine Fletcher observing this tender display from another dimension, smiling down on it all.

Depeche Mode's now 43-year tenure has found its principals well-versed in the art of performance and setlist construction. New material from Memento Mori was given proper due with four of its tracks performed, including the hypnotic, industrial "My Cosmos is Mine" and the existential meditation "Wagging Tongue" ("Everything seems hollow / When you watch another angel die," sung Gahan on the latter). Unavoidably, death is a motif that pervades the new album and tour; it was referenced in such visuals as the revolving skulls during "Enjoy the Silence" as well as video of a black-robed Gore and Gahan playing chess during "Ghosts Again" (think Max von Sydow vying against death in "The Seventh Seal").

Speaking of motifs, other keywords crop up repeatedly in Depeche Mode's universe of sin, desolation, and redemption. The words "angel" and "pain" are two examples — "John the Revelator / All he ever gives us is pain," proclaimed Gahan on one of the surprise deep cuts of the evening, and this, a mere four songs after belting out "A Pain That I'm Used To." Still, perseverance and transcendence exist within the group's worldview. Arriving mid-show, "I Feel You" from 1993's Songs of Faith and Devotion brought such messages as "Your heart it sings" and "I am whole." In the encore, "Just Can't Get Enough" lifted spirits to the rafters with its carefree, joyous propulsion. Contrary to some beliefs, desire doesn't always have to bring suffering. 

"Just Can't Get Enough" was, well, not quite enough. Unfinished business remained that any self-respecting Depeche Mode fan knew was coming, but still relished the idea of. The band launched into "Never Let Me Down Again" (an epic movie in song form, if there ever was one) followed by "Personal Jesus" to close it all out. The shuddering walls of sound washing over the audience during this end piece demonstrated the singular power of Depeche Mode — an immersive, soul-cleansing baptism by synthesizer.

Yes, we must die. But first, more life-affirming experiences like this, please.