Wednesday, June 10, 2009

See the stars: Depeche Mode's "Never Let Me Down Again"

Camille Paglia recently wrote one of her off-the-cuff, wildly tangential articles for Salon. The ostensible topic was Obama's Cairo speech, but CP found herself musing on U2 and a "new release" from Depeche Mode (in this case, the 1986 - 1998 "Singles" collection). She spoke in glowing terms about music, but saved special praise for her favorite song, "Never Let Me Down Again."

Since it has been a couple of years since I have included a Depeche Mode essay in this space, I figured Paglia's passing mention of what I also feel is the band's signature masterpiece (among several contenders) is impetus enough for an entry.

Then, of course, I gulp a little realizing the song is nearly a quarter of a century old!


‘Never Let Me Down Again’[1] - Hailed as a masterpiece by critics and fans alike, ‘Never Let Me Down Again’ (‘NLMDA’) managed to impress even the most ardent of the band’s detractors upon its release. As was the case with ‘Leave in Silence’ and ‘Stripped,’ ‘NLMDA’ bolsters Depeche Mode’s reputation for composing thoughtful and unconventional pop music for adults. What makes the song so pleasurable to listen to is the sheer ambition of the arrangement. Opening with a swaggeringly aggressive synthesizer progression, the song then crashes into a torrent of pseudo-xylophonic keyboards before settling into the mainline of the melody. Dave Gahan’s vocals stab into the song, injecting a heated, potent masculinity into the mix. He seems to announce the lyrics as though he had picked up one of the megaphones from the album cover. All this could become quite grand and pompous were it not for the tongue-in-cheek lyrics reflecting Gore’s predilection for humor in unexpected places:

[He] promises me I’m as safe as houses

As long as I remember who’s wearing the trousers

The line serves the same purpose as the “makes me sick” lyric in ‘Somebody’ in that it tends to take the edge off the seriousness of the subject matter while still driving home the central theme of the song. In this case, Gore is exploring modes of control within the framework of a male friendship; a novel concept for the songwriter who has previously concentrated almost exclusively on romantic relationships. In the song, Gore contends that in even the most egalitarian alliances there are tendencies for one of the partners to ascend to a position of dominance. Inevitably, a clash of wills will erode whatever informal, democratic procedures that have been built up from the onset of the relationship. In the case of Gore’s narrator, the moment of acquiescence is implicit in his role as passenger in the car rather than driver. This role will be replayed in reverse later on when the narrator of ‘Behind the Wheel’ wearily requests that his lover take the wheel, so to speak, in the relationship. But ‘NLDMA’s narrator appears to give only grudging assent to the designated roles. Bitterness and resentment seem implied in the refrain of “I hope he never let’s me down again,” as though the narrator himself were cognizant of a history of disregard. But given this behavior it seems counterintuitive that he would continue to absolve his friend thus initiating a cycle of low-level abuse and frustration. There must be some payoff for the narrator. If there is, Gore is frustratingly cryptic about what that might be:

He knows where he’s taking me

Taking me where I want to be

The idea that the relationship consists of a mutual, if perverse, give-and-take is intriguing. It would tie ‘NLMDA’ to ‘Dressed in Black’ and that song’s prevailing psychosexual exchange of desire and control. The issues in that earlier song are more unequivocal than on ‘NLMDA’ where there are only suggestions of reciprocation. We know, for example, that the narrator of ‘Dressed in Black,’ despite outward appearances, is not meaning to complain about his situation with his lover but to exalt the relationship. He implores the audience to “give in to the fire within” so that they too might experience the pleasures that he has come to know. Obviously, whatever pains he has had to endure in the course of the affair is inconsequential compared with the ecstasy he derives from it. By contrast, Gore provides little to indicate how the narrator might be benefiting from the abuse he receives on ‘NLMDA.’ The final refrain only magnifies the curiosity while doing little to tease out details:

See the stars, they’re shining bright

Everything’s alright tonight

We can only assume that the nature of the relationship involves some kind of unspoken reciprocation. But while it is obvious that the “best friend” has assumed the dominate, alpha male role and therefore requires a degree of deference from the narrator, what the narrator gets out of the bargain is, at best, ambiguous. We might speculate that a measure of safety or protection is had by the narrator under the auspices of his more dominant friend. The “safe as houses” comment suggests this may be the case but the ironical tone tends to undermine any such inference.

Much has been made of the song’s homoerotic overtones. New York’s Village Voice made a sloppy, sweeping generalization that the song was either about … drugs or gay sex.” This sort of short-hand analysis over-simplifies the metaphorical possibilities inherent in the lyrics. The objective “truth” of the song is allusive but I think it is safe to say that whatever the narrator is getting from the relationship is profound enough to keep him coming back. It may be the case that the two friends are romantically linked, but given the strange dynamics I think it is safe to say that much of sexual tension is being sublimated into a socially acceptable, but ultimately unsatisfying, platonic friendship. The unwillingness on the part of the friend to “give in” as ‘Dressed in Black’ suggests, to “the fire within” (in this case, a sexual “fire”) is at the heart of his will to control the narrator. The sublimation of pent-up homoerotic desire by dominance behavior is a classically Freudian sort of analysis of the situation, although there is not very much here to suggest that it is not simply “natural,” alpha-male posturing.

Of course, a part of the song’s mystique is the ambiguity of the situation. Few Depeche Mode songs have every been so scrutinized for meaning as ‘NLMDA.’ It is difficult to assess Martin Gore’s intent in keeping things so murky but I am convinced that the old cross-dresser rather enjoys teasing the audience with suggestions of deviance – and I use this word rather broadly because Gore refuses to commit to a view of the scene as either a platonic friendship or a repressed gay love affair. Despite my frustrations with the details of the arrangement, I have to confess that genius of the song seems to hinge on this fact. By keeping the true nature of the relationship elusive Gore manages to maintain an unusually taut degree of tension within the confines of the song. We may indeed want to know more; we may desire more revelation, more dirt, but we are not going to get it. The songwriter knows that the very best art provokes questions rather than answers them. In ‘NLMDA’ our assumptions about what constitutes a relationship are challenged. Gore takes us for an exhilarating “ride” across unfamiliar territory, and though the trip may not always be a safe one , we can be assured some stimulating vistas.

[1] Although it has gone on to become a recognized classic, ‘Never Let Me Down Again’ failed to make much of a dent on either side of the Atlantic, chart-wise. In the UK the single peaked at #22 before falling off the chart completely after just three weeks. Thanks to ample dance-club interest, the US market managed to keep the single alive longer (ten weeks in the Hot 100) peaking at #63. German fans came to the single’s rescue, raising it to #2 in the national charts.

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