And so, we finally get a new Depeche Mode album, and the good news is that it’s continuing in the Playing the Angel tradition of electric quality. The first two post-Alan Wilder Mode records, 1998’s Ultra and 2001’s Exciter, seemed sort of unfocused as to what sort of musical direction they were going to take, and it’s nice to find a beloved band rediscover their groove and find a way to progress along it. And if Playing the Angel promised “Pain and suffering in various tempos,” this record promises “songs in the key of space.”
“In Chains” starts the album off and lets us know that the boys from Basildon are still exploring the dark turns of human behavior, letting emotionally destructive and imbalanced relationships provide the thematic grist. It’s quite refreshing to hear Dave Gahan in such strong voice, and now that he and writing partners Christian Eigner (who plays drums on a few tracks and in the band’s touring line-up) and Andrew Philpott have started to contribute songs to the band, it feels like the pressure has eased up on Martin while at the same time motivating him to bring his A-game.
“Hole to Feed” and first single “Wrong” continue in a similar vein, with the occasional nice sound amidst some midtempo emotional dissection, but it’s truly refreshing to see that with “Wrong,” Depeche have realized that remixes of their singles which are actually dancefloor-friendly can be a great addition. Both Peter Rauhofer and Staurt Price have created great alternate takes on the track which remain true to the song while still maintaining a club-friendly attitude.
Where Can You Find the Great Remixes?
Those kind of mixes had pretty much been banished to promos and the internet going back as far as the Deep Dish mixes of “Freelove,” Brian Transeau and Rauhofer’s takes on “It’s No Good,” and the sadly never-released officially anywhere Gabriel and Dresden remix of Black Celebration’s “Here is The House.” That attitude continued up through the last record, with Martin notably blasting the Victor Calderone/Mac Quayle mix of “Precious” in Elegy Magazine as being made for American clubs "stuck in time as if they still listen to house from 10 years ago.” So to have the Mode actually supporting some danceable mixes is certainly a sea change for the fans.
“In Sympathy” is one of the best Depeche Mode songs in the past fifteen years. It’s almost a little too digital-feeling for its own good (this is just how Producer Ben Hillier’s work sounds, and if that’s okay with the band, then it’s okay with me), because a little analog warmth and some of those weird Hansa sampler noises, and this could have fit in on Some Great Reward. “In Sympathy” is a great example of why Martin Gore is one of the best songwriters in contemporary pop, because he writes complex music that sounds simple, but is just as good at writing simple music that sounds complex. “In Sympathy” comes from a more refracted perspective than what we’ve yet encountered on the record, and it’s a glorious high point, one that’s sustained by the following track, “Peace.”
Peace is a Sound of the Universal Past
If “In Sympathy” has the vibe of Some Great Reward-era Mode, “Peace” feels like it’s making peace with the 1980/1981 Vince Clarke-era Mode, with its primitive yet resonant drum loop and its defiantly old school keyboard sounds. It’s not pop piffle, like the Clarke-era Mode excelled at, but it finds that plaintiveness and mystery and uses it to break out of the ‘dark Depeche’ milieu for just a few minutes to grant perspective on a cosmic scale.
“Come Back,” one of the Gahan/Eigner/Philpott compositions, and “Perfect” are effective journeys back into familiar waters, but they gain from the reach of the one-two “In Sympathy”/”Peace” punch. “Jezebel” lets Martin take over lead vocals, and it is glorious. An enterprising country artist could do an arrangement of this that would let them take over the charts completely, and in Martin’s hands we have the kind of depraved magic that he can bring to songs.
And then before you know it, it’s all over with “Corrupt,” a glacial and creepy little number that lets Dave get all icy-hot with promise and regret (and the best subset of the union of those two elements: Black Celebration-style). You could find that throughline through most Depeche Mode records, that balancing act between promise and regret, but the boys haven’t seemed this sure of themselves in a while. As a longtime fan, I’m happy with the record.
Is it fair for me to compare it, in my head, to any of the albums the group made with Alan Wilder, which I do as a matter of course? Probably not; Depeche Mode haven’t been that band in fifteen years. You can’t let a band’s towering achievements become a stick that you beat up on their current work with (well, unless you’re talking about Prince and his over-too-soon work with Wendy and Lisa). So I embrace Sounds of the Universe for now, and I take “In Sympathy” and “Peace” straight to my heart.
Released April 2009 on Mute/Capitol Records