Review Summary: Lamenting the loss of spirit in the world, Depeche Mode inadvertedly showcase the lack of one in themselves
Oh, Depeche Mode. How many years upon the throne of gloom pop. Time has washed over you, chiseling out your features to the point of extreme clarity (and in certain light – bordering on grotesque travesty). You’ve got nothing left to prove to anyone. You’ve got no mountains left to climb – you became one. A looming presence, ever felt in the world of mainstream music. Your many peaks, formed at the shift of the two final decades of the twentieth century, your monstrously important contributions are still being listened to, worshipped and played. Mainly by you. On your never-ending world tours of greatest hits.
Yes, there’s no denying that DM are a pop music mammoth, whose footprints are still being followed by many an artist of our time. And I consider myself to be if not a fan then at least a highly passionate admirer of their finer works. If I could legally marry a record I would probably take “Songs Of Faith Of Devotion” to the altar, and still I’d be sneaking out in the middle of the night to cuddle in the arms of “Violator” or fancy a quick one with its two goth sisters, “Black Celebration” and “Music For The Masses”. Point being – I adore DM at their best. I also feel personally offended when they don’t live up to it. Even their second best.
Keeping to the theme of stating the obvious it’s also important to say that DM haven’t been exploring any territories or blazing any trails in about twenty years. “Playing The Angel” had the last impressive quality-to-quantity song ratio, while on “Sounds Of The Universe” the quantity of tracks clearly outweighed their artistic merit, save for a couple of cuts. “Delta Machine” was almost a novelty piece – everything about this record kept telling you that this was a gimmick, a foray, a passing quirk of combining blues and electropop. While still carrying some catchy singles that fit the chosen theme nicely, there was an apparent undercurrent of staleness running through the material. But hey, if this is just a “one-off” bluesy album, surely they’ll get back to being just generally good again pretty soon, right?
Then “Where’s The Revolution” dropped and so did any hope I harbored up to that point. It was the same three-four time bluesy swagger of “Delta Machine”, coupled with the cranky slide guitar and the vintage synth sounds that were so dominant on both previous albums. Even more frustrating was the fact that somehow even after an entire record of bluesy tunes DM still managed to make the first single from “Spirit” sound even more similar to their first big bluesy single in three-four time, “I Feel You” from 1993. They’ve struck gold with this combination back then; by 2017 its market value has somewhat wavered.
There are actually fewer instances of deliberate self-references on “Spirit” then I’ve originally anticipated. The other obvious one being “So Much Love”, which rides the ‘motorik’ beat, successfully utilized in “A Question Of Time” 1986 and again in a new dress in “Suffer Well” in 2006, borrowing the more mechanical drum sound of the former, the rising synth squelches from the latter and carrying nothing of his own. The hook is lightweight material by DM’s standards, and that sadly could be said about basically every single track on “Spirit”. And to add insult to the injury, the album is sprinkled with little moments of cool that are stuck onto dull songs which then come off only as fairly serviceable instead of genuinely gripping. Like the opening track, “Going Backwards” (hello irony, my old friend), which moves on autopilot with its stomping steady beat through its secondhand melody but ends with a neat little call-and-response between Gahan and Gore that highlight the beat’s menacing repetitiveness and could’ve turned it into a virtue if the bulk of the track wasn’t so safe and predictable. Or “The Worst Crime”, with its overly dramatic melody that sounds like a low-key Broadway musical number for one, could have benefitted from more of the tension-building drum breaks that close the track off; but again – it’s too little too late.
But that is not to say that Depeche Mode don’t try to at least mimic the presence of life in their new album. “Scum” bounces off a late NIN-inspired beat and distorted vocals that act as a foil to the despondent synth harmonies in the chorus. The track aims for the more aggressive side of DM’s spectrum – a rather underpopulated side, too, so there’s no real comparison to be drawn, at least not until the track ends and the next one begins with an even harder edge. “You Move”, a song co-written by Gore and Gahan, is a surprise – it’s as close to a modern-day club banger as DM are probably gonna get. While not ambitious enough in the composition department it’s fun to hear DM take on the idea of a dancefloor overtaken by sweaty teenagers after midnight with so much self-confidence. At least the effort here is admirable.
However admirable such efforts may be, though, a great deal of Depeche’s strength has always been the instant emotional connectivity of their songwriting. I’ve sat on a bench in a park, album playing in my headphones, patiently waiting to get excited. And the two instances where the music caused my eyes to round with interest where, unusually enough, the two Gore-sung tracks. “Eternal”, starting off with midi accordion samples, initially seemed like a sappy self-parody in a minor key, until the sudden swell of electronic noise washed over the track before quickly fading away, leaving me to frustratingly expel “what the heck?!” before coming on once again at the close. It was a genuinely unexpected dark twist; it hinted that maybe not all bags of tricks that DM has have been totally depleted. The second Gore solo spot, “Fail”, evoked feelings of “The Darkest Star” off “Playing The Angel”, with its skeletal arrangement and creeping, despondent atmosphere. The murky chord progression hangs in the air, an uneasy superficial calm before a storm of the rumbling head-bobbing beat that wakes you from the trance. The song closes the album with a sense of impending doom and lost hope on music alone, gracefully transcending the awkwardness of lyrical lines like “our conscious is bankrupt; oh, we’re ***ed”.
Oh Lord almighty, the lyrics. Yes. Depeche Mode create songs and songs require lyrics; I guess, there was no loophole out of that. But why for the love of saint Nick Cave those lyrics had to be mostly bland and preachy proclamations that read like they could be printed in a leaflet at some sort of rally? It’s not like socially conscious statements are a no-no in pop music; if anything, when executed correctly, they can be an advantage. And even DM had their share in churning out vaguely political statements with catchy tunes back in mid-eighties (and thanks to them we now know that Everything Counts in large amounts and People Are People so why should it be). But there is a fine line between delivering commentary from the gutter, the thick of it, experiencing hardships and injustice first hand and being 50+ y.o. bona fide popstars dropping lyrical insight as broad as the Caspian Sea and as deep as a puddle of rain on a very flat surface. And when they’re not doing that, it’s standard “lustful love” fare in DM town, some sleazier and some more longing in nature; if it ain’t broke, don’t bother.
I’ve spend enough time bashing the album but I can’t bring myself to deliver the fatal blow. Yes, a lot of the songs here are bland; but they’re so because it’s Depeche-effing-Mode. It’s the Enjoy The Silence guys, it’s the Personal Jesus crew, the OGs of Walking In My Shoes and many more. Their extensive repertoire creates such a heavy shadow on what they do now, they might as well not release anything anymore; but it still doesn’t hinder the actual tracks from being competently crafted little pieces of dark pop music with a few nudges here, a few scratches there that make it all… passable. I still found myself humming the chorus of “Where’s The Revolution” to myself after hearing it only twice, I still bobbed my head to ”Going Backwards”, “You Move”, “Scum” and “Poorman”, I did actually enjoy “Eternal” and “Fail”. The band still knows how to arrange and produce their stylish brand of electro-rock. Dave Gahan’s voice is still the same hot mulled wine set against the glassy palette of synthetic sounds and minor key melodies. And I would still go and spend my hard-earned dough to wave my hands around and shout along with the crowd at a live show, waiting for my favorite songs to come up. Depeche Mode are still Depeche Mode. Their legacy is impervious to criticism, and it’s a blessing in more ways than one; because their current output is irrelevant to anything.