Saturday, September 24, 2016

1986 - Black Celebration

Less Than Zero was a chronicle of our lives; Bret Easton Ellis merely wrote it down (I didn't have a pencil). Gen X was the new wave, young enough to have escaped disco and punk - like starting over - as if we were in an episode of Behind the Music. We were cool like there had never been cool, fashioning a restless style, as if it had to go to the bathroom. The Cult With No Name, post punk, disaffected electronic crooners in outfits that channeled Bowie and Bolan (Spandau Ballet, Ultravox, Steve Strange), morphed into vintage-clean-cut, L.A. kids shopping at Cowboys and Poodles for Permapress slacks and clip on bowties (Haircut 100, Orange Juice, ABC); seconds later it was motorcycle chic (Depeche Mode, Heaven 17) – all of it obsessively clean, photographable, pretty. Quickly, there were too many girls/boys (“Which do you choose, a hard or soft option?”)/strangers, too many drugs, too many intoxicated drives home at dawn; calling out sick; that time you woke up in a phone booth by Danny’s Oki-Dog (“How’d I get here?”); that kid who died at the Lhasa from too much amyl.

Some of us escaped the worst and blotted out that Oki-Dog thing and finished college and somehow balanced it all (Clay and Blair), and some of us died trying (Julian Wells). Less than Zero was the fictional chronicle of our lives, River Phoenix was our poster child – and whereas Robert Downey Jr. made it through – River Phoenix, like Downey’s fictional character Julian, did not.

Music then, was more like soundtrack; it was incidental and in the background; it was a singles age (to be specific, it was the 12 in. singles age), and because of that, it is often, too often, critically overlooked and even dismissed. I nixed 1986’s praise for the Pet Shop Boys in favor of the far more accomplished offering from Depeche Mode, Black Celebration. No one had expected the emotional and political stance that this electronica dance band would take with Some Great Reward which followed three albums of danceable fluff (I can still picture Dave Gahan’s slight 19-year-old frame spinning like a girly top at the Roxy in 1985 and pushing him into the pool at the Roosevelt Hotel because I could and it seemed like he could use a good pushing in.) So who knew the lads, despite Some Great Reward, despite their devastating introduction to the American audience with “Blasphemous Rumours,” could find their voice in Black Celebration.

Though Violator was Depeche Mode's greatest commercial success, Black Celebration was the group's most cohesive effort. A concept album that takes the listener on a journey through the societal underbelly of sex, drugs, depression and betrayal, it is a dark affair indeed. The title cut is a synth masterpiece, with eerie sounds building until the song explodes, the protagonist wailing, "Your optimistic guise/looks like paradise/to someone like/me..." - haunting. The album ebbs and flows between soundscapes and tempos that serve only to make it more unsettling. "Black Celebration" segues effortlessly into "Fly On The Windscreen - Final," seething with a sense of urgency that is suddenly scaled back by the sequencing of "A Question Of Lust," "Sometimes" and "It Doesn't Matter Two."

The flip side carries on with the sexual tension of "A Question Of Time" and "Stripped" giving way to "Here Is the House," a beautiful contemplation of what it means to be home; a song somewhat out of place amidst these melancholy dirges and a sorrowful prequel to the deceptively upbeat closer, "But Not Tonight." Here we find, not a house, but a song depicting those magical nights when you realize that life is about you and the universe, that the stars and the moon are billions of years old and all those societal expectations, responsibilities and anxieties are tiny in the grand scheme of things. You feel for a moment that a great weight has been lifted from your shoulders and you are wiser than you were just 5 minutes ago… BULLSHIT. It's not about that at all. “But Not Tonight” is the greatest of songs, of poems (take that Bysshe-Shelley!) about regret and denial, the lyrics diametrically opposed to Dave Gahan’s exceptional and heart-wrenching vocals. Black Celebration is an album of interpretation; one of those dichotomies in which the meaning of each song is so clearly apparent until you talk with someone else, and realize you were so very wrong. If it's not, that should be the definition of poetry.