Speak & Spell – Depeche Mode

Release Year: 1981

Rating: 6.5/10

Every band has a black sheep in their catalog, that one album they don’t want to talk about. For Depeche Mode, it’s their very first. With songs written by former DM member Vince Clarke, this record doesn’t display the moody and dark band we know today. The content is more synthpop and makes them sound like any new wave band during the time. Since its release the band has dismissed the LP and said it’s their least favorite, but is it really that bad?

Depeche Mode are known for their introspective lyrics, dark synth, and songs that talk about taboo subjects. None of that is on this album. This one is sugary sweet like so much pop music during the 80s. You hear this right off the bat with the opening track “New Life,” which is catchy, but cheesy. There’s nothing about it to make it stand out from other new wave songs from this period. Despite this, it is really catchy mainly because the synth and the hook are so repetitive. You hear it and can’t help but dance. It’s not bad, but definitely not their best. The next track “I Sometimes Wish I Were Dead” isn’t as morbid as it sounds. The synth is really playful and wonky, but there isn’t anything else notable about the song. It’s not bad, but not very memorable.

Nodisco” finally sees a change in the synth. Rather than sounding really light and sweet, it has a dark undertone making it a bit more interesting. It’s still really cheesy, especially since it sounds like a rejected disco tune. The lyrics are super corny with the hook being “Move me disco/Baby don’t you let go.” It’s as if Vince Clarke didn’t know what else to write about and this is what he ended up with. “What’s Your Name” has been called the band’s least favorite song by both Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher. And once you hear the light poppy synth that’s bouncy, but way too sugary, you’ll agree with them. It’s this weird 50’s doo wop drenched in generic synth, but it’s the lyrics that’ll leave you scratching your head. The chorus is Dave Gahan repeating “Hey, you’re such a pretty boy/you’re so pretty.” And this isn’t the only time sexualized lyrics towards guys are used. They’re also found on “Boys Say Go!” No wonder so many people thought they were gay for years.

There are a few songs that are listenable and seem most like current Depeche Mode. “Tora! Tora! Tora!” written by Martin Gore, is one of the best tracks on the LP. It’s one of those things where you can’t explain why it’s so catchy. The music is stark, disjointed, and again has darker vibe than the rest of the songs here. Gahan plays with his vocals on this track where he emphasizes certain words. By this point he hasn’t gotten down his vocal style, but it’s at least better than what we’ve heard so far. Another good song is “Any Second Now” which features Gore on vocals. It’s your standard slow track with his soft vocals and dreamy music. Both of these tracks are as close to classic DM you’re gonna get on this album.

The record closes with the notable track “Just Can’t Get Enough.” Of course this is the best song on the album. The synth rings out so wonderfully and sounds so fucking happy it puts a smile on your face. Compared to their later songs it’s kind of cheesy (“Just like a rainbow/you know you set me free”), but it puts you in a good mood. And it has to be their catchiest song in their catalog. The reason it works so well is because there’s actual variation of the music. It’s very bubbly and energetic and during the bridge these bright horns come blaring in for a brief second, but it sounds so good you want more.

The album isn’t horrible, but it probably is the worst in their catalog. A lot of it is standard synth pop that’s repetitive and gets dull really fast. There are a few songs that stand out and even have a hint of later Depeche Mode, but most of them are forgettable. If anything it gives listeners an idea of what the band would’ve been like if Clarke would’ve stuck around. It’s hard to not compare it to their later stuff, but even looking at it as a new wave album, it’s still not that great. Let’s be thankful Martin Gore took over songwriting duties from then on.

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