Review Summary: After the snail-paced 'Exciter', Depeche inexplicably rocketed back up to their familiar dark and moody brand of electronic pop. The best Depeche Mode album since 'Songs of Faith and Devotion'.
It's as if Depeche Mode wanted to make a statement with 'Playing the Angel', after the disappointment of 2001's 'Exciter'. 'Exciter' was soft and mellow but that's not Depeche. So it comes as a much welcomed sonic surprise as the first track opens with ear-shattering siren blasts for the first 20 seconds of 'A Pain That I'm Used To'. Gore's lyrics are as sharp and personal as they've ever been ("All this running around, well its getting me down, just give me a pain that I'm used to"), and although the song has a slow beat it's a million times more catchy than anything heard on 'Exciter'; and it sets the tone for the whole album in terms of quality.
The quality carries itself across the entire record, especially impressive considering Depeche were 25 years old when this album was released in 2005. This return to form can also be heard on 'John the Revelator' - a superb track, featuring a stellar vocal performance from Gahan and a whirling, bubbly synth rhythm. 'The Sinner in Me' is just as effective, displaying an eerie atmosphere as light, airy electronics float around in the background as Gahan delivers Gore’s confessional lyrics, "How sweet life would be, if I could be free, from the sinner me".
Even though it’s the bands eleventh studio album, 'Playing the Angel' manages to tread new ground, as Dave Gahan turns in his first 3 lyrical efforts, to surprisingly brilliant effect. Any fears that he couldn't compete with Gore when it comes to song writing are surely quashed by the sorrowful 'Suffer Well' or the agonising desperation in 'Nothing's Impossible'. The latter has a hollow, cold atmosphere with chilling electronic buzz running underneath detached, gloomy lines like "Just give me a reason, some kind of sign", that manage to be saved by the hopeful chorus, "I still believe in love at first sight, nothing's impossible".
Everything that made Depeche Mode great just seemed to come flooding back into the studio and the album is undeniably one the bands finest. After 25 years, a suicide attempt and band members leaving, DM demonstrate they're far from finished, especially as Gore's song writing is rarely as touching and effective as it is on the stunning 'Precious' - a song about his divorce and its effect on his children. The track comes scarily close to 'Violator' standard In terms of quality; its essential listening.
Ever since after 1993's 'Songs of Faith and Devotion', there've been numerous signs that suggested Depeche had fallen from the incredibly high pedestal they'd been placed on in the late 80s.'Ultra' had some good moments but nothing near 'SOFAD' standard and 'Exciter' was just devoid of any hooks or melody. It's a surprise then, that Depeche made such a turn around in 4 short years, but then again this is Depeche Mode - a band who never settles in one sound entirely, evolving and shifting ideas into different sonic experiments, always surprising fans. With tracks like 'Nothing's Impossible', 'John the Revelator' and the gorgeous 'Precious', 'Playing the Angel' may just be one of the best surprises the band have ever released.