A Little Piece: The Evolution of Dave's Songwriting
(with video links)
July 25, 2021
Dave has been a singer and a performer for over 40 years. Of course, his best-known and longest tenure is with Depeche Mode, but not everyone realizes that he is not the sole lyricist for the band. Furthermore, he hadn't even started writing lyrics for DM until quite recently in Mode history- 2005 to be exact! Dave as a songwriter does go back much further than that, though exactly when he started writing songs of his own is unknown. Of course, the general public's first taste of that was from Paper Monsters, his first solo album, released in 2003. Admittedly, not many Mode fans were a fan of his songwriting on that album. The reasons for why is out of scope for this article, but now that both Dave and DM have been releasing songs penned by him for almost 20 years, he has had plenty of time to grow as a songwriter. In this article, we want to take a closer look at how his songwriting has evolved over that time period.
Budding lyricist with "Closer"
"Closer" is the earliest known song written by Dave to have been demoed for Depeche Mode.1 Dave said in this video (starting at the 6:11 mark) that he had written it in 1993 and that it was called "The Ocean Song," then. Of course, it ended up not being released under DM, but rather as a B-Side to the Paper Monsters single, "I Need You," 10 years later. I have already written a full review of this song here, but from a songwriting quality perspective, I have to say that this was not at all a bad start for Dave. The lyrics are quite lengthy and they do incorporate a lot of rhyming. Other than that, the words are very simple and don't employ a lot of complex literary devices that, say, Martin Gore does. The lyrics to this song are very visceral- they describe feelings and sensations, using very common and familiar themes and images like a "rolling ocean," a "howling and barking dog," and describing feelings in a common manner such as a "heart caving in" and a "burning stomach." The words are meant to be understood and felt by any common person. For a singer and performer who claims to be very visual and sensual, words like these are not a surprise and are actually easily palatable to the ears and mind. Stylistically, though, they're not very interesting.
Writing what you know
"Write what you know" is the old adage we were taught in school when we needed a little writing inspiration. It was a piece of advice usually given when we were made to write a boring essay or when we didn't quite make the grade with our fantastical short story about a superhero frog and toad pair who had adventures not unlike that of Batman and Robin. Was that weirdly specific? Okay, sorry...where I meant to go with that was writing about what you know is a great way to start off with writing song lyrics. And whether Dave did it consciously or not, he seemed to take that adage to heart on his debut solo album, Paper Monsters. Just about every song on the album is about a personal and real experience specific to him. And again, Dave is very visual and sensual with his words, though also very elementary and simple. In fact, what strikes me about this whole album in particular is that there are quite a few songs that I really, really like because of how Dave sings them and the sound of the music overall, but lyrically, they are very...I'll say it- bland! A prime example of this is in "Black and Blue Again" where Dave tries to take the very simple phrase, "I'm not very nice," to an almost orgasmic level of expression (which he does do a decent job of, I must admit). Again, I do do a song-by-song review of Paper Monsters elsewhere on this site in which I gave the album a pretty decent overall rating, but in retrospect, it was definitely because of how the songs sounded and in particular, how Dave's vocals sounded. Lyrically, the album is elementary, at best.
"Praying over the porcelain throne" -"Dirty Sticky Floors"
"Living here in shades of grey / Color she light a reason to stay" -"Stay"
"She lit another candle and slowly fell into the flame" -"Goodbye"
Breaking through the glass ceiling
After Paper Monsters, Dave came back to Depeche Mode with much more confidence to demand songwriting credits on the next album, which became Playing the Angel. I can't imagine that that would've been an easy feat, as he was essentially upending a working formula that had worked for DM for the past 25 years up to that point. Thus in a way, I can somewhat sympathize with Martin, as it would've been a huge risk to drastically change the formula so far down the road, especially after the not-so-commercially-successful Exciter. But then again, drastic change was exactly what DM needed. And Dave delivered. His song, "Suffer Well," ended up earning a Grammy nomination! So, what changed in his songwriting between Paper Monsters and Playing the Angel? Did Dave attend songwriting classes? Did he become, in his own words, "fucking Wordsworth" overnight? No, not at all. Of course, this is highly subjective, but I actually think that serendipity had a big part in making "Suffer Well" so successful. The title is very attention-grabbing and unique. In fact, it sounds a lot like a title that Martin would come up with, and who knows? Maybe a lot of people actually mistook it for a Martin song? I don't actually have any evidence to back that theory up, though. So then, suppose that everyone was fully aware that it was written by Dave. The lyrics are still pretty simplistic- similar to the stuff on Paper Monsters, but again, employing that unique phrase, "suffer well," made it kind of catchy and memorable in a somewhat dark and forbidden way that is classic to DM. But my honest opinion is that the overall success of this song was also due in part to the DM instrumentation and production magic, as well. In fact, a wise musician once put it this way: "You can basically get away with anything if you give it a good tune."2
"I just hang on, suffer well" -"Suffer Well"
"Sometimes I cry / Sometimes I die it's true" -"I Want It All"
"Even the stars look brighter tonight / Nothing's impossible" -"Nothing's Impossible"
Now, if you put the lyrics from Paper Monsters, Dave's first solo album, and Hourglass, Dave's second solo album, side-by-side, the difference is quite stark. It is pretty safe to say that Hourglass was where Dave finally found his voice (figuratively-speaking, of course) and came into his own. Again, you will read from me time and time again in my reviews of the songs from this album that the things he does with his physical voice are amazing, but unlike in previous works, he also gained a level of lyrical maturity that even rival Martin's in some cases. "Saw Something," "21 Days," and "Endless" in particular all share something in common which I'm calling an ability to paint an elaborate tapestry with words. Dave's not just describing immediate images or feelings using plain and trite language anymore; he has matured into gaining the ability to tease the listener (or reader) and draw them in with little verbal hints and vignettes, slowly revealing the entire picture or story throughout the entire song.
"After the storm had passed / I wondered how long the break in the clouds would last" -"Saw Something"
"Building a tower of fear by the river / Building it up, build it up" -"21 Days"
"Time itself has slipped away, now you are mine" -"Endless"
With two successful solo albums and plenty of songwriting opportunities with DM under the belt, Dave was ready to move on to bigger and better things. Again, whether serendipity or confidence had a bigger hand, Dave found that opportunity to really expand his songwriting repertoire once he started collaborating with Rich Machin and Soulsavers. The years 2012 and 2015 saw him write almost entire albums full of songs, with lyrics credited mostly or entirely to him. As an aside, something fascinating to me is Dave's lyric-writing process. Apparently, he falls into the camp that starts with the melody first, usually singing it in gibberish, and then he would come upon words or phrases that fit the tune later.3 Compare and contrast this to the other camp of songwriters who come up with the words first and then the melody later. Maybe some of Dave's songs were also conceived this way, but the music-first-words-second approach has been all he has ever spoken of. Personally, I'm curious to know what kinds of "gibberish" he sings in his proto-songs- that would be quite entertaining to listen to!
Anyway, there is a very noticeable progression in Dave's lyric-writing from Hourglass and Sounds of the Universe to The Light the Dead See. Now, I think part of that is attributed to the style of music that Soulsavers employs in the sense that it already dovetails nicely with Dave's lyrics, which always had an air of grounded-ness and simplicity to them. But, I also sense yet another level of development and maturation in his lyrical style and themes. With the exception of a few songs here and there, I feel like the majority of Dave's earlier work was expressing in very plain terms, "This is exactly what I'm feeling right now" (e.g., "Closer", "Black and Blue Again", "Endless") or "This is exactly what I felt at the time" (e.g., "Dirty Sticky Floors", "Suffer Well", "Saw Something"), whereas with Soulsavers and more recent DM work, it's a little more complex and interwoven with other people and ideas, like for example, "This is what I feel in relation to this divine power or cosmos" (e.g., "Presence of God", "You Owe Me", "All of This and Nothing") or "This is how another person might be feeling" ("Gone Too Far", "Broken", "Don't Cry").
"There's a place where I go / Without any sound / Only you can reach me / Only you're allowed" -"Broken"
"Black water high, too high to breathe / There's a ghost outside my window / Haunting me" -"All of This and Nothing"
"We appeared with the northern lights / Beyond these broken bars / I pictured us in another life / We're all super stars" -"Cover Me"
The present day and the future
The very last time we were treated to Dave's songwriting was via a handful of songs on DM's Spirit album as well as his one-off collaboration with Null + Void in "Where I Wait" in 2017. What is interesting about these songs is that they all center around the theme of interpersonal relationships. But they were neither sappy love songs nor trite breakup songs per se; they all had a thread of complexity running through them, such as struggling with lust ("You Move"), having a fantasy ("Cover Me"), breaking up with oneself ("Poison Heart"), struggling with the breakup process, itself ("No More"), and a longing for unconditional love ("Where I Wait"). This is fascinating because his very own bandmate, Martin Gore, made an almost 40-year-long career of writing lyrics expressing the very same themes! And if Martin's lyrics are the gold standard of DM lyric-writing, then one might come to the conclusion that Dave has perhaps finally reached that level, himself. And therefore, that has some very exciting prospects for DM in the future with more Martin/Dave collaborations that could prove to be mind-blowing. But of course, that's a different topic for a different day, altogether. Despite all of the more complex themes that have been popping up in Dave's songwriting as of late, he still retains a very distinct signature in his songwriting that will always be there.
- Paper Monsters EPK, Mute IPKSTUMM216, 2003
- Alan Wilder, Depeche Mode: 1984 ("You Can Get Away With Anything If You Give It A Good Tune..."), 2006
- "Depeche Mode: The Complete SXSW 2013 Interview", npr.org (March 25, 2013)
So, which Dave-penned songs or lyrics are among your favorites? Are there any that particularly highlight his songwriting abilities really well? Please comment below!