Despite somewhat embarrassing beginnings as a synthpop boy band in the early 1980s, Depeche Mode has made a career of evolving poppy keyboard rock into darker layers of textured synths, brooding lyrics, and stinging guitars. It is somewhat surprising that the band behind silly pop hits like 1981's "Just Can't Get Enough" is the same band that would eventually release disturbingly catchy singles like 1984's "Blasphemous Rumors", which quietly condemns God for perpetuating the cruel joke of human existence. This transformation culminated in Violator (1990), which spawned the megahits "Enjoy the Silence" and "Personal Jesus", the latter of which has recently been covered by contemporary musical "messiah" figures Johnny Cash and Marilyn Manson.
While Violator marked the culmination of the band's goth/electronic/pop/alt rock fusion, it also signaled the end of an era, for the band's output throughout the 1990s was often disappointing, perhaps underlined by lead singer David Gahan's 1995 drug overdose, and the departure of longtime keyboardist/drummer Alan Wilder. It would have seemed that Depeche Mode had gone the way of so many other rock groups, burning brightest just as they were set to burn out, eventually becoming aging parodies of their former selves.
Those who still remembered the band had reason to both rejoice and fear their 2001 comeback, Exciter. The album somewhat surprisingly made the mainstream radio rotation with "Dream On", a gentler Depeche Mode track that still managed to make good on many of the synth hooks that had carried the band through its heyday. However, most fans and critics alike saw Exciter as an echo of past glory and were well convinced that Depeche Mode's best days were far behind them.
It would appear that these people (myself included) were sorely mistaken. 2005's Playing the Angel shows the band to be capable of meeting and even sometimes surpassing their best work from the late 1980s. The album's first track, "A Pain That I'm Used To", commences with a barrage of heavy distortion, quickly transitioning into a catchy synth beat over which Gahan chants anthems as dark and catchy as any he's ever sung: "All this running around, well it's getting me down / Just give me a pain that I'm used to / I don't need to believe all the dreams you conceive / You just need to achieve something that rings true". The song continues to build, occasionally exploding with further blasts of distortion that show Depeche Mode to be able to pack a punch as strong as they ever could.
The album then transitions into "John the Revelator," a fierily contagious goth pop anthem that fuses a myriad of religious imagery with that trademark Depeche Mode anguish. Give it a few listens, and I dare you not to find yourself singing along to the overpowering refrain: "John the Revelator/he's a smooth operator". Some listeners may be put off by the angsty rhymes and pseudo-goth pop hooks, but when they're layered over such well-nuanced textures and coherent songwriting, it's hard not to give in.
Other highlights include the US radio single, "Precious", a synthetic dreamscape that picks up where Exciter's "Dream On," left off, but with much more strength and vitality this time around. "Nothing's Impossible" stands out as an enchantingly mournful lullaby that casts a dark shadow over themes of hope and redemption. "Lilian" features layered synth textures and an invigorating beat over such lyrical gems as "Pain and misery always hit the spot / Knowing you can't lose what you haven't got". The album comes to a close with "The Darkest Star," a darkly atmospheric song that, like all of the group's best efforts, relishes in the bittersweet pain of love.
With the 80s rebirth craze reaching its pinnacle in 2005, it's surprising to find a dark electronic rock album that still manages to sound as fresh and powerful as Playing the Angel. Perhaps this is because Depeche Mode have no need to imitate the best alt rock acts of the 80s - after all, they have always been one of them. Furthermore, Playing the Angel stands as proof positive that Depeche Mode is not a mediocre band that occasionally released a few good songs; rather, they are a great band that occasionally released a few mediocre songs. And when they are able to give us an album as great as Playing the Angel, it's hard not to forgive them their vices and sins.
A Pain that I'm Used To
John the Revelator