Review Summary: After compromising their sound with rock and ambient electronica, DM stay as they are...the darkest stars.
How many times have you seen one of your favourite bands or artists peak with a fantastic album, only to be slightly disappointed with the rest of their succeeding work? Sure, it's of a great standard, it's well thought out, but that spark
isn't there. The peak has been reached, and all you can hope for is a handful of above-average albums that tide you over without truly satisfying your palette. That's just the law of gravity, right?
Wrong. After weathering a quarter of a century of drug addictions, personality clashes and musical changes, not to mention two extremely important members of the group upping sticks and hitting the road, Depeche Mode inexplicably returned with a record that surprised everyone who thought that the band were a spent force. Its power as a musical statement was bolstered by the many comparisons it received to DM's 1990 masterpiece, Violator
. While the approach (unnerving electronic effects and chugging guitars) was the same, Playing The Angel
came across as less static and rigid than Violator
. It's looser, dirtier, more world-weary, yet still containing enough killer guitar hooks and synth effects to keep the new listener interested.
The previous two albums began with slow, atmospheric sounds to ease the listener into the album. Playing The Angel
, however, wraps its clawed hands around your throat from the instant you press the play button. 'A Pain That I'm Used To'
starts with a LOUD mass of distorted static siren effects, before a very catchy chorus starts and you're singing along before you can help it, "All This Running Around/Well It's Getting Me Down/Just Give Me A Pain That I'm-ah-Used To"
'John The Revelator'
is the polemic centrerpiece. Lyrically, it's frustratingly naive in some parts, "John The Revelator/Put Him In An Elevator"
, yet inspired in others: "Seven Lies/Multiplied By Seven/Multiplied By Seven Again"
. This cover of an ancient blues classic is gifted a stomping Goth-riff in the chorus, combined with Martin's soulful harmony, and makes it a song that's impossible not to sing along to. It's destined to become a live favourite. Great stuff.
The fast pace is continued with the next song. 'Suffer Well'
is one of three songs that Gahan wrote for the album (a new thing) and is driven by a great guitar line and suitably morose lyrics. 'The Sinner In Me'
slows down to a waltz-like pace, yet remains disturbing. The breakdown is excellent and is followed by 'Precious'
, the most recognisable song here and definitely the most beautiful. Retro-electro, with hypnotic verses and strong, pulsing synths, it's the standout of the album. The middle-eight here is particularly good.
After that, unfortunately, the album changes course. It wasn't entirely unreasonable to expect a few slow-tempo numbers after that raucous start, but the mistake Martin Gore makes it to ensure that the following song is utterly forgettable. 'Macro'
is a descent into Goth/hippy territory that doesn't work - plain and simple. The electronic effects here are interesting but it sounds a little too self-indulgent and his voice doesn't suit the song.
The rest is good, but fails to live up to the high standards of the beginning of the album. It's still great stuff, though. 'I Want It All'
is saved from its banal lyrics by a trippy, almost disturbing guitar line, and a great duet at the end. 'Nothing's Impossible'
contains an extremely icy
electro effect at the end of the first verse and also at the end of the song. It's stark, yet hopeful - a typical DM trait.
Martin chucks in a couple of mediocre tunes ('Damaged People'
has some pretty keyboard lines but not much else) before unleashing 'Lillian'
, an up-tempo tune that brings back the pace, if not the meaningful lyrics. 'The Darkest Star'
sounds exactly like the title - it's a subliminal masterpiece, complete with reflective, trippy lyrics that are dispersed at the end of every verse by a crashing, pounding piano noise. It's a bleak, doomy end to this exquisite album.
part 2? No. Not quite. But looking at the approach, the sheer quality of most of the songs, and the past two efforts, I'd say Depeche Mode came pretty close.