If any longtime Erasure or Depeche Mode fans were perplexed by this year’s collaboration between Vince Clark and Martin Gore (VCMG), they’re not likely to have many questions answered by the latest release from Soulsavers, which finds the beautifully tortured Dave Gahan assuming lead vocal duties. Depeche Mode was – and perhaps, still is – the #1 purveyor of swooning, melancholy synth pop. Sure, it was dark, angsty, and melodramatic, but Gahan and Gore always had a knack for taking brooding subject matter and infusing it with singalong melodies and a slick pop veneer. It’s why songs like “Black Celebration” and “Policy of Truth” continue to resonate today, more than 20 years after their release.
With VCMG’s debut album (Ssss), two old friends sought to reconnect after 30 years apart via a motoric collection of club-ready techno jams. It was a far cry from the lush romanticism and assuaging textures of either man’s day job, but it made for a frenzied cocktail of club grooves and bristling electronic soundscapes. Yet despite its raw energy, Ssss seemed like a left field departure from the radio-friendly formats in which Erasure and Depeche Mode usually dabbled – agitated, visceral, and unrepentant.
Now, Rich Machin and Ian Glover – two Brits with a jones for downtempo electronica who call themselves Soulsaver – have recruited Martin Gore’s brother in arms of the past three decades to take the helm for their 4th LP. Though no one would expect Gahan to steer Soulsavers onto to the dancefloor, it seems just as unlikely that he’d escort them out of the club and into the cineplex, but that’s exactly what he seems to have done. This is the stuff of Hollywood film soundtracks, and Gahan’s robust baritone is a perfect fit for the proceedings.
The Light the Dead See is teeming with soaring string orchestrations, sentimental piano melodies, and hushed acoustic guitar strums. Depeche Mode and Soulsavers may have electronica woven into their music DNA, but there’s little indication of that here; these songs are better suited as the accompaniment to some romantic drama or thriller, where life’s hardships are examined through the spurn of unrequited love.
But in stark contrast to all of that stands “La Ribera,” a fusion of harmonica drones and dirtied guitar arpeggios that would sound more at home in a Western. The track serves merely as a prelude though to “In the Morning,” which features a pulsating bass line, lavish string harmonies, and Dave Gahan’s impassioned cry of “I am lost here!”
“Longest Day” melds the Mode’s trademark gloomy imagery (“Shadows dance around me in the dark”) with a chorus of female voices and blues-inspired guitar licks. In our imagined movie, this is the song that plays as the female lead loses her mind, having just been completely undermined by her would-be lover. On “Just Try,” the group takes things in a ballad direction with pleading lyrics, mournful string counterpoint, and wordless vocal harmonies. “Gone Too Far” uses similar instrumental devices (pained vocals, acoustic guitar rhythms) as “Just Try,” but exudes tones of regret and helplessness where its predecessor soared on a message of persistence. The track also features one of Gahan’s finest vocal takes, indicating that the man who once repeatedly sang “reach out / touch faith” has the pipes to sound like he really means it.
The Light the Dead See is a shockingly organic record, assembled with so many acoustic instruments that those unfamiliar with this group’s associated acts would be hard pressed to consider this anything other than pop/rock. Synthesizers, keyboards, and ambient atmospheres are all but absent here. Listen to a track like “Take Me Home,” and you might even be fooled into thinking this is some gospel or R&B affair. This LP doesn’t bring anything terribly innovative to the table, but stylistically, it does represent a major leap for all parties involved; when you compare it to Ultra or Violator, soul crooning balladry feels positively renegade.