Depeche Mode, now completing their third decade as the world’s finest purveyors of electronic mope rock, continue to defy the laws of pop culture. The band that would go on to influence everyone from the Crystal Method to the Killers saw their commercial peak back at the dawn of the 1990’s, when hair metal was giving way to grunge and frontman Dave Gahan pleaded with us to “reach out and touch faith.” But it wasn’t too much longer before the Mode looked ready to retire their synths and S&M gear altogether; Gahan’s suicide attempt in 1995 and subsequent speedball overdose made more headlines than 1997’s Ultra, and pretty soon a handsomely packaged greatest hits compilation was on shelves. 1990’s chart topping Violator was being relegated to the “nice price” bins just as a tribute album featuring everyone from Dishwalla to Veruca Salt was released. The end seemed imminent.
Ten years later, the band is alive and well. A headlining spot at this summer’s Lollapalooza Festival and the release of their 12th studio album are the culminating events of a resurgence that first showed signs of life back in 2001 when the IDM-influenced Exciter was released. It was 2005’s edgier Playing The Angel, however, that put Depeche Mode back on the radar. The first album by the trio to feature songs penned by Gahan, it would go on to garner critical acclaim and even earned the band a Grammy nomination for Best Dance Recording. Resultant world tours proved the boys could still sell out arenas and stadiums like it was 1987. With their latest effort, Sounds Of The Universe, it sounds as if that trend will continue.
The Sturm und Drang electronica that Depeche Mode was pioneering twenty years ago manages to sound surprisingly fresh on their new disc, despite the expectedly bleak overtone of songs like “In Chains” and lead single “Wrong.” The band has tempered their standard preoccupations (sexuality and autophobia) with a cocktail of glossy synth pop, subdued industrial clatter, and even a little optimism.
“Peace,” one of the album’s most impressive tracks, is one such case where the Mode meld the old and the new. With synths that sound like a note for note remix of “See You” (from 1982’s A Broken Frame), Gahan and principal songwriter Martin Gore sing a gorgeous and unabashedly uplifting duet about, well, finding inner harmony. The usually unsettling interplay between Gahan’s robust baritone and Gore’s vibrato-heavy tenor is more palpable this time around too, thanks to the confidence that Gahan has gained after a couple of solo releases and formal vocal training.
It can’t all be sunshine, though. “Come Back,” one of Gahan’s three songwriting contributions on the record, is the sound of a desperate man in the darkest recesses of outer space, where clanging percussion and keyboards envelope the swooning vocal melody. Album opener “In Chains” seems to unravel before it really gets going, with abrasive drones and off-key undulations that sound like Depeche Mode’s answer to the THX audio demonstration just before a movie. The song addresses the feverish desires of unrequited love, set to some synth textures that evoke thoughts of “Fly On The Windscreen” while Gahan sings, “The way you move / has got me yearning. The way you move / has left me burning.”
The album gains considerable momentum through the angular guitar riffs of “Hole To Feed” and the buzzsaw electronica of “Wrong,” but it is in the album’s final third that the energy seems to stall. Martin Gore’s solo vocals on “Jezebel” are simultaneously creepy and saccharine, while instrumental “Spacewalker” feels like a tossed off b-side from the Violator era.
While it may lack the aggressive and occasionally caustic momentum of Playing The Angel, Sounds Of The Universe succeeds primarily because of its ability to make a nostalgic nod to past successes while still looking to the future. It’s not Depeche Mode’s masterpiece, but it will at least provide the fans of Some Great Reward and Ultra with a neutral meeting place.