If rock and roll has always been a genre of frontmen, you could argue that electronic music belongs more to the backroom boys. Vince Clarke, mild-mannered mastermind behind Depeche Mode, Yazoo, the Assembly, and Erasure, may well be king of them all.
Clarke has always been an unassuming presence, giving the meek geeks who would rather toy with a Sequential Circuits Pro-One than swagger around on stage an icon of their own. With that in mind, it should be no surprise that Songs of Silence – his first album under his own name after a lifetime of playing sidekick – is a passion project.
Borne out of excitement over the chance to play with the Eurorack synth in lockdown, Clarke claims that throughout development he ‘wasn’t thinking about anyone else hearing it […] even the cat used to leave after an hour or so of listening to drones’. What’s more surprising is everything else about the album.
As soon as the vast, multi-layered hum that opens ‘Cathedral’, the album’s first track, washes into being, anyone expecting another ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ will have their assumptions upended. With only a brief, incomprehensible snippet of radio noise in place of a lyric, the piece evokes the immensity of the universe, its choral tones suggesting the reassurance which is the flipside of this existential shock.
This is all the more striking because Clarke’s pop-god status arises not just from his deathless knack for diamond-bright melody lines, but the warm intimacy which they counterpoint. In time-honoured tradition, his songs so often stick because of how well they alchemise the longing for connection into joy.
But we are not now hearing Vince Clarke the anthropologist of the human heart, but Vince Clarke the tone poet, and the imagery he conjures is broodingly sumptuous. With Clarke deciding to build each track around a single note, he seems to be orbiting a different image or idea each time, giving us ten distinct flavours of doom – suitable for a world which seems to instil a new fear whenever we switch on the news.
Take, for instance, ‘Red Planet’. If some future Attenborough were to make a documentary about Martian life, they could do worse than to put this on the soundtrack. While tech billionaires attempt to spin Mars as a beacon of hope for the survival of our species, its glacial beat is more suggestive of the menacing Martians of 1950s B-movies, alien troops approaching in boxy spacesuits.
Even its opening chords seem to tip a subtle nod to the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s jolted into life by the same synthesised rattle that anchors Kraftwerk’s ‘The Robots’, which froths over the soundscape in a splash of bright red colour.
In contrast, ‘Passage’ is an unremitting black hole of gloom, with only a haunting operatic wail (courtesy of Caroline Joy) escaping its event horizon. Similarly, the sustained drones of ‘Imminent’ helix around one another to draw out the meditative qualities of deep dread, broken only by subtle pings which seem to be transmitting from the depths of a pit.
The darkness doesn’t end beneath the Eurorack’s casing. Just when you think it can’t get any more sombre, along comes ‘The Lamentations of Jeremiah’, built around a lilting, mournful cello part played by Reed Hays. As the rough-edged melody grows faster and faster, its weariness and grief builds too, seeming to reach past time and space like something on the Voyager golden record.
And yet, hints of the Vince Clarke we know continue to leap out. The galloping hook of ‘White Rabbit’ gives way not to his familiar soaring elation but the breed of pounding percussion most familiar from gritty action-film trailers. On ‘Mitosis’, as well, he carves glow-in-the-dark rivers of bubbling synth through the track’s chilly, cinematic jet-engine roar, accenting the result with chiming bells and twangs of Morricone-style guitar.
Then we have ‘Scarper’. The sprightly synth sequence that bounces over its eerie backdrop is so reminiscent of his work with Erasure that the effect borders on the uncanny. He sets sparkling electronics over smudges of acoustic instrumentation and an anxious tick-tick-tick, making you feel more as though you’re being chased through wild, knotty woods than having your heart broken at the disco.
Ecstasy and panic can be close bedfellows, after all, and here we find Clarke demonstrating that fact in full flow. His fizzy pop stylings seem in theory like the last thing that should belong to folk horror, but ‘Scarper’ lays bare the truth – his work has never been clinical. It has always thrummed with a racing, unguarded, passionate pulse, as full of feeling as the soulful vocalists it underscores.
Clarke saves the biggest surprise of all for the antepenultimate track. George Michael may have condemned efforts to link the feel-good abandon of 80s pop to the heartless self-absorption of Thatcherism, but even so, was anyone expecting one of the era’s most commercial hit-makers to come out with ‘Blackleg’?
Over the most chilling drone yet, Clarke sets an old recording of the classic folk song ‘Blackleg Miner’, a violent excoriation of strikebreaking workers. This choice grounds the album’s brooding anxiety in a fear more immediate and elemental than any hinted at before. On its own, the song is unforgettably rousing. With Clarke’s cavernous ambient ruminations as accompaniment, it becomes primordial.
By the time ‘Last Transmission’ brings the album to an end, the meaning of such a personal album becomes clear. As befitting its lockdown origins, it crackles with the shards of lost hope and broken connections, fishing tranquillity from unease.
Clarke left Depeche Mode before they became the imperious electro-goths we know today, but there are pieces on Songs of Silence which make ‘Personal Jesus’ sound like the Archies. In creating this album, Clarke wanted to evoke ‘a sense of sadness, of things going bad, things crumbling’, and he has achieved that to triumphant effect. It proves to be an ominous delight, showing us an unexpected new side to the synth-pop master as he stares fearlessly into the dark.
Songs of Silence is out now via Mute Records – stream or buy via Bandcamp
Find out more about Vince Clarke on his official website
Review by Poppy Bristow
Photography by Eugene Richards