Ultra is the ninth album by British Alternative Dance band Depeche Mode, released in 1997. Prior to recording, the group experienced a protracted phase of turmoil: Alan Wilder quit in 1995, disillusioned with life as a member of the band after the chaotic production of Songs of Faith and Devotion and the extended mayhem of its subsequent tour; singer Dave Gahan attempted suicide in 1995 and suffered a near-fatal heroin overdose the following year, and feelings among the band's members had grown so tense that it was difficult to come up with usable material anymore. Thus, the band ceased to be a creative powerhouse, reverting to a trio for the first time since A Broken Frame in 1982 and taking over a year to finish recording for the album. Such was the trauma of this period, the band seriously considered breaking up in the midst of it all. However, they'd eventually overcome this turmoil and push through, remaining active up to the present day.
While Ultra continues the mix of Synth-Pop and grunge that marked SoFaD, Depeche Mode realized that without Wilder, they could hardly once again reach the scope and depth of that album, and another vinyl LP-length record would've been considered a notch or more below its grandiose predecessor. Perhaps to compensate, the album ended up being much longer than any of Depeche Mode's prior releases, clocking in at a whole hour and informing the more CD-oriented lengths of most of their following records.
Ultra is carried by the strength of its four singles: "Barrel of a Gun" (released 3 February 1997), "It's No Good" (released 31 March 1997), "Home" (released 16 June 1997), and "Useless" (released 20 October 1997). The first and the last of them are the hardest numbers on the album, electrorock with the stress on "rock". "It's No Good" was the most enduring hit single, being considered on par with the material the band had crafted with Wilder and going on to become the definitive song of Depeche Mode's late 90s period. These three songs were probably the purest specimens of alt-rock ever put out by the band alongside 1993's "I Feel You" and 2005's John The Revelator. "Home" meanwhile was one more otherworldly downtempo ballad sung by Martin Gore, being far more esoteric yet at the same time far more stark via tapping into Gahan's newfound sobriety in the wake of his overdose. The singles nearly completed the first side of the record, with the only non-single track from this half being "The Loves Thieves", a psychologically deep and heartfelt song about an evil maneater.
The album's tracks on the second side didn't fare as well, being mostly forgotten quickly after the album's release. "Insight", the final track, is a somewhat standout item, but here the rocking is much more subdued. The remaining songs meanwhile are pieces of languid nocturnal music, informed by the band's growing interest in Trip Hop that would more readily manifest on Exciter four years later. Jaki Liebezeit of Can drummed on "The Bottom Line", which probably prompted a few Krautrock aficionados to check this track.
The band themselves were sated with public drama after the circumstances surrounding the album's production, and because they had much less room for controversy as a trio they dialled back their antics in time for the release of Ultra, appearing to suddenly mature even further than before. Dave Gahan in retrospect seemed to grow the most out of any member of the band, spurred on in part by his near-fatal overdose and his subsequent motivation to finally clean up for good. For the sake of their health and sanity they also reduced the scale of their commercial ventures: a tour for the album did not happen at all, with the band's next tour occurring the following year in support of Greatest Hits Album The Singles 86>98. (This tour would only encompass North America and Europe in spite of having a slightly larger amount of shows than the 1994 Exotic tour before it, with the smaller-scale model being retained until 2009, when the band returned to worldwide touring in support of Sounds of the Universe.) Longtime collaborator Anton Corbijn started to dial down his involvement with the band as well: while he directed almost all of the videos for this album barring "Home", his only later contributions to the band were the videos for "Suffer Well" off Playing the Angel, "Should Be Higher" off Delta Machine, and "Where's the Revolution" from Spirit.
Despite all of this, the album still managed to be a strong commercial success for the band, topping the charts in the UK, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Spain, Sweden, and the collective European Union, peaking at No. 5 on the US Billboard 200, and going on to be certified platinum in Italy and gold in the UK, the US, Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. While considered a step down from SoFaD by both fans and critics, it was and still is mostly well-regarded, being considered a worthy follow-up to its 1993 predecessor and being ranked alongside Playing the Angel as one of the two best albums of the post-Alan Wilder era (which is otherwise accused of Seasonal Rot). In 1999, Ned Raggett ranked Ultra as the 50th best album of the decade, and the record is more widely recognized nowadays for its heavy influence on the Polish rock scene, with local magazine Tylko Rock ranking it at No. 71 on 100 Albums That Shook Polish Rock.
- "Barrel of a Gun" (5:35)
- "The Love Thieves" (6:34)
- "Home" (5:42)
- "It's No Good" (5:58)
- "Uselink" [instrumental] (2:21)
- "Useless" (5:12)
- "Sister of Night" (6:04)
- "Jazz Thieves" [instrumental] (2:54)
- "Freestate" (6:44)
- "The Bottom Line" (4:26)
- "Insight" (8:37) note
And I thank you for bringing me tropes, for showing me tropes
- Angst: Much less existential despair on this album compared to SoFaD. In parts it is tranquil, in parts it is just sad. Plus two or three very special rocky episodes.
- Beauty Is Bad: In "The Love Thieves"
- Love needs its martyrs
Needs its sacrifices
They live for your beauty
And pay for their vices
- Biblical Motifs: Present in the lyrics of "The Love Thieves", although the true implications are more than a bit muddy.
- Big "YES!": An angry "yeah" pronounced by David Gahan several times during "Barrel of a Gun" sounds very unpleasant but memorable. On one occasion it sounds close to a burp.
- Break-Up Song: "Useless" is this; sources vary as to whether it is about the break-up of a relationship or a band.
- Brick Joke: In the beginning of the video for "Home", the ghost first comes to see the boy who sits at the table contemplating a glass of milk. In the end the ghost returns in the same room to now see the boy topple the glass without touching it, by mere strength of his thought.
- Broken Record: The outro of "Insight" is made up by You've got to give love, you've got to give love repeated many many times.
- B-Side: Two of them: "Painkiller" for the single release of "Barrel of a Gun" and "Slowblow" for "It's no Good". Though considering that "Junior Painkiller" (a shortened version of the former) was included on Ultra anyway as a Hidden Track, it's not exactly B-side-exclusive.
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander: The addressee of the diatribe in "Useless":
- All your stupid ideals
Got your head in the clouds
You should see how it feels
With your feet on the ground
- Cool Car: This trope is overdosed but the yellow Ford from the video for "Useless" is quite memorable, also because of its impressive arrival in the abandoned quarry in the beginning. It has a letter "U" on its side which appropriately stands for both "Useless" and Ultra.
- Cross-Referenced Titles:
- Two tracks on this album are named "Uselink" and "Useless". They are placed side to side on Ultra — with the short instrumental "Uselink" literally a link into "Useless" from the preceding track.
- Two other tracks are "The Love Thieves" and the instrumental "Jazz Thieves". They are far apart on the record.
- Did Not Get the Girl: In the video for It's no Good David Gahan probably did not get a hooker. The girl who had been accompanying him, behaved like a prostitute, also she immediately quit him when his money had been stolen.
- Dying Alone: That's what happens to an elderly character in the video for "Home". That said, the ghost watches him, so the trope isn't played completely straight, but the ghost's invisibility causes the old man to believe he is alone.
- Empty Eyes: David Gahan's eyes occasionally turn into this during the video for "Barrel of a Gun" ; in several scenes they lack pupils.
- Epic Rocking: OK, "rocking" is a strong word for it, but "The Love Thieves", "Sister of Night", "Freestate" and "Insight" all surpass the six-minute mark, even when excluding "Junior Painkiller" from the latter's runtime. The album as a whole also deserves special mention, with its 60:04 runtime being longer than anything the band had put out up to that point. It would remain the band's longest studio album for 12 years, eventually being knocked down to No. 2 by the 60:52 Sounds of the Universe.
- Failure Is the Only Option: For the clerks and the tailors, the sharks and the sailors who try to court the heroine of "The Love Thieves".
- Femme Fatale: The character described in "The Loves Thieves" appears to be one.
- Funny Background Event: Somewhere in the middle of the video for "Useless" is a man leading a pony by its bridle across the screen in the distance.
- Genre Roulette: Averted: gone are the days of the eclecticism of SoFaD. Singles are fairly heavy electrorock (with "Barrel of a Gun" and "Useless" leaning closer to Alternative Rock), the remaining tracks are downtempo items; "Home" is a beast of its own, though.
- Ghost Story: Seems to be the case of the video for "Home". Some people live in the apartments shown in the clip while the ghost watches them unnoticed moving between apartments through the walls.
- The Gloves Come Off: In the beginning of the video for "Useless", as Gahan approaches the camera, he takes his gloves off and throws them down with a brusque movement, acting as a prelude to the following diatribe.
- Grand Finale: The band make attempt at one with the chorus of "Insight", which finishes Ultra:
- And the spirit of love
Is rising within me
Talking to you now
Telling you clearly
The fire still burns
- Grievous Bottley Harm: In the video for "It's No Good" this trope is played inconsistently. First various characters in a sleazy bar hit other characters with bottles (which all break in shards) and the victims are comically unperturbed, let alone unharmed. Some time later as the band quit the bar several people lie on the floor unconscious.
- Hidden Track: The closing song "Insight" ends roughly two minutes before the 8:37 mark on the tracklist, at which point the unlisted "Junior Painkiller" takes the reins for the remainder of the album's runtime; the track is indexed separately from "Insight" on digital releases. Notably, "Junior Painkiller" is not part of the "Interlude" series of hidden tracks that had began with Music for the Masses ten years prior, and hidden tracks as a whole would remain absent from the band's output until 2009, when Sounds of the Universe finally threw in the fifth "Interlude".
- I'm Having Soul Pains: In the lyrics for "Useless":
- Here I stand the accused
With your fist in my face
Feeling tired and bruised
With the bitterest taste
- Important Haircut: The length of David Gahan's hair shortens with every single, coinciding with his cleanup of his act following the turbulent period of personal crisis in the preceding years.
- In the video for Barrel of a Gun it's still long enough to rank with his Looks Like Jesus getup from the SoFaD era, with the song dealing with the drug issues that informed that album. The general importance of hair is further stressed by the montage when Dave's hairdo changes its shape every second.
- In the video for "It's No Good" he plays a sleazy character; his hair is still fairly long and messy.
- In the video for "Home", Gahan is generally a living prop (the song being sung by Gore), but looks cleaned-up and civil. His hairdo is shorter.
- "Useless" features Gahan prominently; his image in this clip became one of the iconic looks of his late young age. He appears a completely respectable, albeit angry gentleman here. Interestingly Martin's hair is cut here very short too.
- Instrumentals: "Uselink", "Jazz Thieves", and "Junior Painkiller". Unlike the short instrumental interludes in previous albums, which were unlisted and tacked onto the runtime of other songs, here the former two tracks are listed in their own right — setting a pattern for subsequent Depeche albums. "Junior Painkiller" meanwhile is a short Hidden Track at the end of the album, a cut-down excerpt of the "Barrel of a Gun" B-side "Painkiller".
- Jump Cut: In the video for "Useless", to make the experience feel more jarring to watch; the end result is a good match for the angry mood of the narrator pronouncing on a diatribe.
- Lighter and Softer: While still bleak, this album lightens up in comparison to SoFaD. Gloom and despair are not predominant any more; mostly it's just sadness and melancholy. Rock songs are not cheerful, but at the same time do not feel like cries from an abyss.
- Longest Song Goes Last: The 8:37 medley "Insight"/"Junior Painkiller" both outstrips every other track on the album and closes it out.
- Lounge Lizard: David Gahan plays one in the video for "It's No Good".
- Love Martyr: Mentioned in the chorus of "The Love Thieves".
- Minimalistic Cover Art: The sleeve art for Ultra is some fairly odd and unidentifiable pattern courtesy of Anton Corbijn.
- Mythology Gag: In the video for "Useless" Dave Gahan sings in the foreground while Martin Gore plays guitar in the background. Andy Fletcher? He fetches a glass of something to Gahan, to jokingly remind the viewers of the general opinion considering his function in the band. Later he takes a guitar which is characteristically bigger than Martin's.
- One-Word Title: Ultra, "Home", "Uselink", "Useless", "Freestate", and "Insight". The album title in particular stands out for the fact that it's the shortest in Depeche Mode's entire repertoire: at just five letters long, it beats out the runner-up, Spirit, by a single character.
- Pretty in Mink: The girls accompanying the band members in the video for It's No Good. Also it might be argued that David Gahan is the one as he sports an outrageously tasteless fur coat and looks quite flashy.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: "Barrel of a Gun" was heavily informed by Dave Gahan's suicide attempt.
- The Reason You Suck: This verse from "Useless" is this:
Got your head in the clouds
You should see how it feels
With your feet on the ground
- Shout-Out: David Gahan walking in a sheepskin coat with burning lights in the video for "Barrel of a Gun" might be an allusion to a sleeve for Delicate Sound of Thunder by Pink Floyd.
- Slimeball: Gahan plays a Lounge Lizard-tinged version of one in the video for "It's No Good", intentionally hamming it up.
- Soft Glass: The bottles in the clip for "It's No Good" break into shards too easily upon impact.
- Step Up to the Microphone: Martin Gore sings "Home" and "The Bottom Line". The former even saw release as a single, a rarity in the band's discography.
- Surprisingly Gentle Song: "The Love Thieves", squeezed in the single-filled side A of the record; coincidentally or not, it's also the only song on side A that wasn't released as a single.
- Take That!: Of a WMG/YMMV character. It is said that "Useless" was penned by Martin Gore to vent his anger about Alan Wilder's departure.
- Testosterone Poisoning: For the main character of "It's No Good":
- Don't say you want me
Don't say you need me
Don't say you love me
Don't say you're happy
Out there without me
I know you can't be
'Cause it's no good
- Trip Hop: The band begins to take influence from the genre on this album, especially on side B, more heavily informing their following non-album material and especially Exciter.
- Wham Shot: In the video of "Useless", Dave Gahan spews a bitter monologue (supposedly to a significant other), always looking into the camera. In the end he walks away. In the very last moment the camera revolves and shows the viewer a charming blonde girl with discontented face and crossed arms.
- Word Salad Lyrics: The first verse of "Home" can make one feel dizzy.
- Here is a song from the wrong side of town
Where I'm bound to the ground by the loneliest sound
And it pounds from within and is pinning me down