To commemorate the release of their 13th studio album, today I’ll be turning my attention to a track that finds Depeche Mode at its depeche mode-iest. Truth be told, there are plenty of other Depeche Mode songs that I like more, though this fact is tempered somewhat by the bulk of my exposure to the band stemming from their 1998 singles compilations Still, if you were to ask me which song most embodied that quality that sets Depeche Mode apart from all other bands, the only proper answer I could give would be “Condemnation.”
Oh sure, there may not be much of the trademark synths that many associate with the band’s sound, but thematically, it’s as pure a distillation of songwriter Martin Gore’s artistic obsessions as anything from D.M.’s entire catalog. Depeche Mode songs have frequently been about love, and a very narcissistic kind of love at that. Go ahead, try to think of a D.M. song that’s about a woman beyond merely how she affects the narrator. Thin on the ground they are. Even arguably their most famous hit, “Just Can’t Get Enough,” is more about the singer’s love for the woman than the woman herself.
The greater implications of this mindset are best left addressed elsewhere, though for now I’ll simply say that I don’t bring it up to condemn (*heh*) Depeche Mode, or Martin Gore specifically. In fact, it’s this self-centered take on notions of romance (and my near certainty that the band possesses a self-awareness regarding it) that, for me, sets D.M. apart from all their contemporaries. Depeche Mode take the shallowness of their lyrics and elevate it, transcend it even, by turning the whole thing up to 11 and playing it completely straight. And for all its other shortcomings (literally, the song is too short), “Condemnation” is a pinnacle of Depeche Mode’s grandiose romantic vapidness.
Instrumentally, the song is about what you’d expect in this regard: choral backing-vocals over a generic tambourine and piano track. Lyrically as well, this is all within Martin Gore’s wheelhouse, though verses like, “Condemnation / Why? / Because my duty / Was always to beauty / That was my crime,” do provide a more tightly focused dose of melodrama. What really makes “Condemnation” a treat, indeed the whole point of the song, are David Gahan’s soaring vocals, here more unabashedly passionate than in most any other D.M. track. The aforementioned verse my strike you as insipid, but when Gahan belts it out with 100% conviction… well, it’s still pretty bad, but at that point it becomes less about the words and more about the energy.
This assessment may lead you to believe I only enjoy “Condemnation” “ironically,” but let me assure you, it isn’t a single percent as ironic as my love for the music video. From the moment Gahan’s warrior princess-in-waiting appears onscreen, you know you’re about to see something special. And “Condemnation” doesn’t disappoint, with its parade of downright Lynchian romantic couples just chilling out in the middle of a Godfrey Reggio film. It’s especially mindblowing to consider that this came out in 1993: one could swear this was made in a parallel universe where it is and always has been the 1980s.
There’s no shame in enjoying the cheesy glory of stuff like the “Condemnation” video. Rather, I assert again that D.M. have purposefully engineered it to that precise end. As ridiculous as you may consider the song to be, it works because it invites you revel in its assured ridiculousness, with the promise that few things would even try to be remotely like it.