Review Summary: After a 28 year relationship, Depeche Mode have dumped doom and gloom. But they’ve kept the handcuffs.
Depeche Mode are a strange trio. Any other band older than CDs and still making music in 2009 would be happy to bask in the warm glow of ‘veteran’ status cautiously bestowed upon them by the world’s media (excepting the UK press, of course). They have the hits, the hysterically devoted fan base, the drug stories, the redemption. They can still sell out stadiums. Martin’s stopped dressing like a woman. Now to take the comfortable route everyone else does; release safe, inoffensive albums that scrape into the top twenty and are guaranteed to get the webzines waxing lyrical about ‘a new maturity’ or ‘return to form’ and award them 6 out of 10. Right?
Wrong. Sounds Of The Universe
is the most optimistic, uplifting album Depeche have ever released. Considering the group’s mid-eighties goth leanings, and the cynical media cliche ’Depressed Mode’, that’s quite a point of note for a band about to celebrate thirty years of minor key majesty. It also risks alienating those insufferably miserable, long-term devotees who are quite happy to take their Mode black, thanks, with no sugar. Happily, Depeche haven’t turned into the Beach Boys overnight; rather, they’ve simply lightened up. Just a little bit. The melodies keep a tense foundation, but are allowed to soar. The tempos are still flexible, but are allowed to go over 40 bpm for once. The synths still bleep, wurp and clank in all the right places, but carry melodies rather than form them.
Speaking of synths, this is a heavily
electronic album, even by DM’s standards. With all members of the band clean and sober for years now, the only addict is main songwriter Martin Gore, who suffered greatly from an e-Bay addiction while making SOTU
and spent huge amounts of money getting his pervy little kicks from ancient drum machines and vintage analogue synthesisers, all of which found their way onto the album. Opener ‘In Chains’
showcases all their new toys; a strange, multi-layered introductory drone of a full synthetic orchestra tuning up, complete with radio squeals, static buzzes and analogue whirrs that eventually melt into washes of synthetic shimmers that float around Dave Gahan’s crooning vocals. Industrial-tinted lead single ‘Wrong’
is an electronic horror anthem in the making (particularly the “WRONG!“ soundbite currently making its memetic way across the internet) yet still displays the black humour so often missed in the band by reminding you of a teenage rant against the injustices of the world. Guitars are still present, but appear to be an afterthought, being used only occasionally to add extra meat to a chorus (the catchy ’Fragile Tension’
) or to enhance a bluesy vibe (the excellent slide guitar on ’Miles Away/The Truth Is’
The most startling song here is ’Peace’
, which appears to be the spawn of a fantastic, divinely-inspired electronic hymn and an Erasure b-side. Amazingly, it almost works, although fans that can still hear the echoes of past misanthropic lyrics might baulk at ”I’m leaving bitterness behind/This time I’m cleaning up my mind”
, and if that doesn’t get ‘em, the sound of Dave suddenly jumping up two octaves will. The phrase “love it or hate it” rings true here. Elsewhere, ’Perfect’
has a chorus that is far too fluffy and life-affirming for its own good, resulting in a perfectly nice song that sounds nothing like a Depeche Mode song. Throw in some better lyrics though, a couple of cool clinks, and some competent harmonies, and you get ’In Sympathy’
. Cautious optimism, underpinned by a mid-tempo groove and a progressive sense of tension, and pushed along by a glistening guitar makes this little gem the best song on the album.
When push comes to shove though, Depeche Mode can’t bring themselves to go all the way with happiness. It just doesn’t come natural to them. ’Corrupt’
is the closer, a Violator
-era track with glam-rock stomps and hums, and some suitably leatherbound lyrics: ”I could corrupt you/It would be easy/Watching you suffer/Girl, it would please me”
. Other songs like ’Hole To Feed’
and ‘In Chains’
speak for themselves, and it’s a relief that Depeche haven’t shaken off the ’Master and Servant’
vibe just yet. And for the Gore lovers, there’s token Martin ballad ’Jezebel’
, yet another weird, obsessive song that as ever is slightly creepy and sounds like it was sung in a vast hall lit only by one candle.
Whereas Songs Of Faith And Devotion
upset some fans by turning up the guitar amps, the warm undercurrents of some tracks on SOTU
get under the skin of those pretentious fans that listen to Depeche Mode, The Cure, Sisters Of Mercy and absolutely nothing else. Still, misguided as a couple of songs may be, it’s yet another high quality album from Depeche, with a new twist that fans should embrace as a one-off quirk. If such nauseating flashes of positivity are still present on the next record, then they can worry. For now, it’s pleasing to see this album as cutting off some of the doomy tags that Depeche Mode have picked up since 1981, and revealing a revitalised, accessible quality that is far more likely than some recent efforts to win over new fans. Which is quite ironic. After nearly thirty years, Sounds Of The Universe
may just turn out to be, truly, music for the masses.