The Meaning of Love: Depeche Mode’s A Broken Frame at 40

How the band sidestepped doom and started a new chapter

Depeche Mode A Broken Frame (Image: Depeche Mode)

By all rights, Depeche Mode should have been dead in the water before they even began recording A Broken Frame

Imagine what might have happened if Brian Wilson had quit The Beach Boys after their first album. Without their resident pop songwriting genius on board, they would probably have crashed and burned pretty quickly, despite the wealth of talent still on hand. 

That’s the sort of situation Depeche Mode was faced with after Vince Clarke left at the end of 1981. Clarke had written nearly everything on Speak & Spell, the debut LP that made the band British pop stars. What would they do without Clarke’s ability to bring timeless tunefulness to the synth-pop era on songs like “Just Can’t Get Enough” and “Dreaming of Me?”

Depeche Mode A Broken Frame, Sire 1982

The crucial fact to consider is that The Beach Boys didn’t have Martin Gore. When Depeche suddenly slimmed down to a trio, the songwriting chores were dumped in Gore’s lap. On Speak & Spell, he had written only the instrumental “Big Muff” and the vaguely Eastern oddity “Tora! Tora! Tora!” but he nevertheless seized the day and cranked out the entirety of A Broken Frame in time for a September ‘82 release, slightly less than a year after Speak & Spell’s unveiling.

It was anybody’s guess what Gore would conjure up for the album. Would the band end up going all-instrumental? Or would their second record be filled with left-field exotica? Against all odds, Gore not only showed he could turn out a twinkling pop gem with the best of them, but also edged the band forward into a darker, moodier place portending the heights they’d reach a few years later. 

“See You,” “The Meaning of Love,” and “A Photograph of You” all prove Gore’s ability to craft the kind of frothy, hook-laden pop delicacies that launched the band’s career. The first became Depeche’s biggest U.K. hit up to that point, and all three suggest that if the band wanted to, it could have picked up right where Speak & Spell left off and continued in a Clarke-style vein in perpetuity. But that’s not what happened.


VIDEO: Depeche Mode “See You”

The rest of A Broken Frame alternates between the melancholy, the mysterious, and the downright creepy. “Leave in Silence,” “My Secret Garden,” and “Satellite” sport club-friendly beats, but they’re far moodier than most of the band’s earlier tunes. Gore seemingly had a lot more demons rattling around in his psyche than Clarke, and they get free rein here. The precedent is set for goth-friendly tunes that would bust the band through to a whole new level of stardom a couple of albums down the line, like “Blasphemous Rumours” and “Master and Servant.”

Fortunately, Depeche never cranked out anything else like “Shouldn’t Have Done That.” The album’s only major misstep, it’s a pretentious, tuneless attempt to trace a warmongering politician’s motivations back to childhood, and it succeeds only as an endurance test.

Fortunately, the ship is quickly righted by the next track. Closing A Broken Frame, “The Sun and the Rainfall” is one of the most musically sophisticated and emotionally mature tunes of the band’s early years. Not bad for a songwriter who was still just 20 years old when the album was recorded. 

A Broken Frame is a transitional point between Depeche Mode’s first burst of youthful verve and the darker climes of their best-known albums. But it’s nevertheless loaded with unforgettable tunes, ranging from the light and sweet to the sardonic and serious-minded. It ultimately proved influential enough that 21st century synth-pop duo Marsheaux released a full-album song-for-song cover of it.

This is the record where Gore became Depeche Mode’s new musical mastermind, but don’t feel too bad for Clarke—he managed to find himself some pretty good places to putter around in humble little projects like Yaz and Erasure.


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