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Martin Gore
MG Ned Raggett , April 27th, 2015 13:42

Martin Gore, as I indicated in the introduction to my recent interview on tQ with him, really has nothing to prove with his first all-original solo album. He's not some striving figure looking to stand out in a crowded landscape, not with thirty five years of recording, performing and touring under his belt. Theoretically MG is just an indulgence, engaged in its own aesthetic universe much in the same way that Depeche Mode has, throughout the years, engaged in a personal reduction of anything and everything to the person, an 'I', a 'you', a moment or a lifetime. The most familiar element of Gore's work, his vibrato and his lyrics, is absent entirely. Even his guitar work, the musical touch that was notable for its near total invisibility in Depeche up until the late 80s and which is now as much a key element of what the band does, is totally gone.

And yet think of it – everything I've described demonstrates exactly why MG is Gore having something to prove, even if implicitly. I may be a long time fan, but I've sometimes fallen prey to an easy assumption – that Gore writes the music, as he did almost exclusively for years following Vince Clarke's early departure, and then leaves it to everyone else to do something with it. Perhaps the most famous comparison lies with Gore's original demo for 'Enjoy The Silence' as a quiet, gentle ballad and then its utter transmogrification by Alan Wilder, Flood and Dave Gahan into the band's ultimate anthem. If anything, it was Wilder that was initially seen to be the electronic/instrumental boffin with his Recoil efforts, also electronic and also instrumental, debuting in the late 80s while Gore's own first tentative step into solo work was the original Counterfeit EP, the first of two releases dedicated solely to covering the work of others, in all cases vocally led numbers. All this while any number of instrumental passages on the main albums and many scattered all instrumental B-sides like 'Agent Orange' or 'Kaleid' were all credited to Gore and Gore alone – the affinity was always there.

So part of the beauty of MG lies in addressing this unspoken assumption, for lack of a better term, an upending of the dynamic. Depeche's album Ultra, the first done after Wilder's departure, was seen to be a Tim Simenon project as much as anything else, but in recent years the band's continuing partnership with Ben Hillier, starting with their late-period standout Playing The Angel, has felt much more like a meeting of minds rather than a simple songwriter-meets-producer/arranger equation. Gore's spoken more openly about his love for early synthesisers, expressed more overtly stated interest in the particular sound that Depeche has made its own, even reunited with Clarke for the aggressive techno blast of their VCMG project. But aside from implied moments on MG, like the squelchy throb of 'Brink' or the crisper kick of 'Crowly,' the emphasis lies instead in reminding everyone, fan or non-fan to start with, about those Depeche instrumental moments, Gore's ear for music above and beyond the pop hooks that always define him, his gift at capturing a mood as much in sound as in lyric. It's not, say, 'Agent Orange' writ large, though, it's something else again.

Gore himself has said since the initial announcement of the album that his intent was to deliver something like a sci-fi soundtrack for a film that never was, where a song like 'Islet' could suggest a space colony in the distance, a refuge in cyberspace, a strange landing platform for the aliens, all thanks not only to title but the arcs of the core melody, their drone signals as cryptic calls. It's not an album with anything with a clear plot as such – the song titles, nearly all one word long, provide concrete ways to think of the pieces rather than a connect the dots story. But one gets the hint more fully about his intent when listening to a song like 'Exalt', where a sudden synth part flows through the mix with the serene chill of Vangelis's textures for Blade Runner, or the stately progression of the first single 'Europa Hymn', a kind of acknowledgement for an ideal maybe under threat or even lost, quietly mournful, still stirring. It's not just figures already well established when Gore began performing, though – 'Creeper' almost feels like a lost track from Selected Ambient Works Volume II, and if it's too "normal" for that era of Aphex Twin, it has the same strange pulsing feeling of buried noises, unsettled feelings; the idea that something, somewhere, is quietly observing a listener with not fully pleasant intent.

It also provides a model for the album as a whole, in that there's a core part at the center of every song that anchors it. It could be a bassline, a percussive part, something else – and then other things shape themselves around it. For all that it created and shaped, of course, nothing entirely feels like it's simply planned out and fully structured – elements emerge in the mix, parts quietly but directly drop in, emphases shift from beats to swirling, quiet loops or the reverse. The electronic brutalism that kept Depeche from ever simply being just a sweet synth pop band straight up, even before the full sample creation of days of their early Einsturzende Neubaten fascinations, feels strong here – at the same time, it doesn't sound like, say, Trent Reznor's various film soundtracks either, the chilly piano and sculpted ominousness of the American's work not the same as Gore's own contemplative serenities and understated flow here.

More than once something does sound classically Depeche, and why not – the way that the lead melody coalesces on 'Stealth' could be from a mid-80s track, if not the full arrangement, to name one example. But there's something here that could almost be what happens when someone originally inspired by Depeche as a young pop fan becomes someone as steeped in other forms of electronic expression with time and experience and wants to engage with it in his or her own way. Does that mean Gore has become his own fan in the end?  Maybe not the way to think of it, but it's refreshing, in a time when the question of roots and 'real' music continues to reflexively, almost moronically reemerge by people who won't have it any other way than one form of electronic instrument over another, even if one just happens to be a guitar. Gore has never solely needed that to get his songs and feelings across, and with MG, he demonstrates that the instruments that helped start his career and that of his band's remain as full of creative possibilities as one chooses to bring to them.