POP MUSIC : In a More Spiritual Mode : Depeche Mode, those heroes of the black-clad teen Angst set, broaden their outlook with 'Songs of Faith'

Chris Willman is a regular contributor to Calendar

Depeche Mode's most controversial moment came with the British group's 1984 hit "Blasphemous Rumours," an outrageously bleak narrative in which a young girl survives a suicide attempt and dedicates her life to Jesus, only to get knocked over by a car and placed on life support.

The moral, such as it was, came in the oft-quoted chorus: "I don't want to start any blasphemous rumours / But I think that God's got a sick sense of humour / And when I die / I expect to find Him laughing."

For a generation of black-clad, budding-agnostic teens--whose hysteria for the band has been especially pronounced in Los Angeles, where the group's last two local shows, in 1988 and '90, were at the Rose Bowl and Dodger Stadium--the venerated men of Mode make just dandy substitute deities, thank you.

So when the quartet puckishly titles its first album in three years "Songs of Faith and Devotion" (see review, Page 86), and even the few songs on the collection that don't have religiously inspired titles do have at least a sprinkling of popular spiritual imagery, you figure the lads are being sinister and clever and wickedly ironic, right?

Pray thee not be so hasty.

"I admit I have a problem," chief songwriter Martin Gore says with a slight chuckle, confronted with the overload of liturgical language in the new songs. He pauses, seeming genuinely introspective. "God knows why--no pun intended--but every time I write a song, I feel a need to touch on religion."

"Or sex," chimes in extrovert singer David Gahan.

"And often I tie that religion in with either love or sex," Gore continues, "because love and sex are things that I can grasp and believe in, and I've never been able to wholeheartedly follow any religion. So they're about as near as I get to understanding anything.

"But I have this inherent longing to want to believe in something. And if I was pushed--no, I don't even think I'd have to be pushed--I would say that I believe in God. And at the time of 'Blasphemous Rumours' maybe I didn't. And I think that comes out in the songs now."

The soft-spoken Gore, 31, says that the change of perspective has occurred over the last few years, and he traces much of it to fatherhood--he has a daughter who is 21 months old.

"Watching her life grow in front of you, you do start to question a lot more, and maybe start to accept things that you didn't accept before," he says, continuing his rare elaborative discourse. "But at the same time, it is all very vague. So I'm playing with things in my own head, because I want to understand more."

The recently remarried Gahan, 30, who gets to sing Gore's words, is happy to go along for the more positive ride.

"I definitely feel that there must be a bigger purpose to life. And it's really only the last couple of years that I started thinking about those types of things.

"I really just had one thing on my mind all the time, which was mostly doing things with Depeche Mode in terms of going out and meeting girls or whatever. And now I'm starting to feel I want to find some other things and look out a bit."

Despite their seemingly shared optimistic outlook on life about now, you could hardly find two more different people to put in a room together than Gore and Gahan.

Seated side by side in a Warner Bros. Records conference area in Burbank, they're a study in opposites: Gahan is a veritable puppy dog, almost too energetic to be contained by his chair, ready to ramble your head off on any subject that prompts his enthusiasm (and it's not hard to find one).

Gore, meanwhile, though not unfriendly, lets Gahan do most of the talking and looks as if he'd rather be doing anything but. While his partner discourses, Gore gazes longingly with watery eyes toward a distant window. When he does speak up, his words are carefully chosen.

Gahan is so upbeat that he can't even be riled by discussing the bad rap Depeche Mode has had over the years among a lot of American critics unwilling to forgive the group for its screaming, youthful following or its dreaded techno-pop origins.

"When we first came here in the early '80s, it was like we were the plague, or some kind of naughty act, like fire-eaters or something," Gahan notes. "But it's really changed a lot, and I think it's healthy. People are open to a lot more ideas, and don't feel like they have to see the Rolling Stones to define what rock 'n' roll is."

It's clear that Gore is the heart of the group, which also includes Alan Wilder, a production whiz who specializes in creating synthesized backdrops for Gore's songs, and Andrew Fletcher, who's said to concentrate mostly on keeping the band's business affairs in order these days but on occasion still sits behind a synth.

Though "Songs of Faith and Devotion" probably isn't his strongest batch of compositions as a whole, Gore may be one of the more underrated pop songwriters of the last 10 years. His instrumental backdrops often have the tone of a synthetic score for a horror or suspense movie, which has over time provided an ominous yet subtly cheeky backdrop well-suited to his slightly twisted tragic romanticism.

He also knows how to put a lilting melody line on top, to the point that it's easy to imagine his best songs--like the last album's "Policy of Truth" and "Enjoy the Silence"--working in any number of genres.

Indeed, Depeche Mode seems ripe for a stereotype-busting "MTV Unplugged" appearance, and Gahan and Gore have thought about it, though they wonder if doing the show itself has become too much of a cliche by now.

Says Gore, "When I write a song, I always start on acoustic guitar, because that's a good test of a song, when it's really open and bare. You can often mislead yourself if you start with computers and samples and programming because you can disguise a bad song.

"I always like to put 'em through that test first. I think it's quite interesting for the fans as well when sometimes at the concerts I actually play a couple of songs acoustically and show that they do stand up."

And though Mode is probably most recognized for its highly technically realized sound, Gore professes little interest in the ever-changing sub-genres of electronic dance music like techno. He says the slightly more organic feel of the new record is, in fact, reactionary.

"If I go out to clubs, I get immersed in the same sort of music all the time, so I think it's not even a conscious effort, it's a very subconscious thing: I react to it and want to create something different.

"And I always felt that I was a song writer, and I'm quite disappointed these days that most things aren't song-based. So I've really tried to hone my songs and craft my songs even more, because I think there's a need for them.

"Most of the stuff that I like tends to be old. I don't find a lot of interesting contemporary stuff around. It's a sad day when the best albums of the last year were probably Leonard Cohen's and Neil Young's. There's a sad day--I mean, they're both getting on."

The Mode men won't be mistaken for folkies in their new "I Feel You" video, where Gahan--who has traded in his clean-cut look for long hair and goatee--cavorts with half-dressed, lithesome Lysette Anthony in the California desert.

It's a slightly surprising celebration of traditional macho heterosexuality from a band that's had a more sexually ambiguous image in the past. More shocking, perhaps, is the appearance of Gore playing electric guitar and Wilder playing a drum kit in the video, on what is the closest Depeche is likely to ever come to a metal number.

"We do it better than most of the supposed rock bands around, don't we?" Gahan says with a laugh.

"I think anyone who has charted our progression won't be surprised at all," Gore says, "because there was quite an evidence of blues-rooted music on the last record, and it's just one step on from that, really. . . . "

Gahan has expanded his range on the new album, both tonally and emotionally--and so has the group. "Songs of Faith and Devotion" has plenty of prototypal all-electronic Depeche Mode, but also more live guitar and drum kit playing than on any previous album, plus Uilleann pipes, a small orchestra and even gospel-type backup singers on individual tracks.

"Part of our appeal is that we've always challenged people, and the fact that this one's different means we probably will retain our fan base," says Gore. "If you repeat yourself, then I think you're in danger of losing that fan base, because if you're not interesting yourselves, you're not interesting your audience."

Depeche Mode's audience is interested. Very interested. Outside the Warner offices, a caravan of limos is waiting to cart the two band members about 300 feet to KROQ-FM. With the riots that resulted from their abortive record-store appearance in 1989 in mind, a police escort has been ordered for the motorcade, and private guards have secured KROQ's building as if Clinton himself were coming to roost.

Getting out of the lead limo, Gore and Gahan are nonchalant as the guards part the sea of waiting, screaming fans for the duo. No riot today. The kids are surprisingly compliant, happy just to reach out and touch the hems of their garments. The ascended masters of erstwhile feel-bad have just given the devotees one more dose of gospel goose bumps.

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