Depeche Mode’s ‘Ultra’ – A Look Back on Dark Days Ahead
Between 1993’s ‘Songs of Faith and Devotion,’ Depeche Mode’s first No. 1 album, and ‘Ultra,’ their ninth record, the band lost multi-instrumentalist Alan Wilder, who’d had enough of the rock-star lifestyle, and nearly lost singer Dave Gahan to a drug habit that led to a suicide attempt in 1995.
So, it was dark, despairing times for a group that banked on dark, despairing music. But ‘Ultra’ traffics in another kind of gloom.
It took Depeche Mode a decade to go from being dismissed as a disposable British synth-pop group to conquering the world as one of the planet’s biggest bands, a stadium-packing force that finally, thanks to the opening up of modern-rock radio in the late ‘80s, scored Top 10 albums. In 1990 they made their masterpiece, ‘Violator’; three years later they made their only No. 1 LP. And in 1997, they returned with a tired, lazy and worn-out record that almost killed their career.
Because of Gahan’s various distractions, Martin Gore penned each of ‘Ultra’’s dozen tracks. And the best of them – ‘Barrel of a Gun,’ ‘Home,’ ‘It’s No Good’ and ‘Useless’ – are fine Depeche Mode singles from the mid ‘90s. But the rest of the album sinks under the weight of Gore’s responsibilities.
Down a member – or two, if you count Gahan’s mental condition at the time – the group simply couldn’t sustain itself under Gore’s guidance. It’s not his fault; he was just handling too much. And the strain is reflected in the underwhelming set of songs.
‘Ultra’ still managed to reach No. 5 and go gold, but it’s Depeche Mode’s first album since 1986’s ‘Black Celebration’ to not hit platinum. Only one of its singles, ‘It’s No Good,’ reached the Top 40, stalling at No. 38. But it hit the Top 5 on the modern-rock chart, and ‘Barrel of a Gun’ just missed the Top 10. It would be another four years before the group made their next record, 2001’s not-so-exciting ‘Exciter.’ ‘Ultra’ began the downward tumble.
Watch Depeche Mode's Video for 'Barrel of a Gun'