“Pain and suffering in various tempos” declares the sleeve of ‘Playing the Angel’ proudly. Business as usual then for the boys from Depeche Mode? A handful of critics seem to think so, having derided the band’s first album in four years as “the same old stuff with some new bleeps and blops”. But they’re wrong.
Yes, it does draw musical inspiration from their landmark albums ‘Violator’ and ‘Songs of Faith and Devotion’ — and the lyrics are preoccupied with sex and religion, as always — but the trio’s latest offering is no cash-in nostalgia trip.
Arresting, vital, dynamic and inviting, this collection of eleven songs and one prerequisite atmospheric instrumental is the best the group has sounded in over a decade. Gone is the patchiness of 1996’s tentative ‘Ultra’ or the distant, clinical approach that sank the frankly thin and underwhelming ‘Exciter’, replaced by a consistency, warmth and confidence that underlines the strength of the songs on offer.
Powered by vintage synths — highlighting the more organic sound introduced by Doves and Blur producer Ben Hillier — and featuring a killer melody, lead single ‘Precious’ is typical of the album’s up-tempo first half.
The driving ‘A Pain That I’m Used To’ adds guitars — and an intensity to proceedings — while the techno-industrial-gospel of ‘John The Revelator’ lets lead singer Dave Gahan show off his best Elvis-meets-Iggy Pop voice.
But, true to form, Depeche Mode enter more restrained territory as ‘Playing the Angel’ continues — with very little change in the songs’ quality. After an overly cabaret intro, ‘Macro’ grows into something that, like most of the band’s best work, is brooding and celebratory at the same time.
‘Damaged People’, which also features chief songwriter Martin L. Gore on lead vocals, continues the trend but, as the least accomplished song on offer here, slightly less successfully.
Which is, surprisingly, where Gahan’s contributions come to the fore. It’s the first time he’s written songs for a Depeche Mode album and while neither ‘I Want It All’ or ‘Damaged People’ outdo Gore’s melancholy masterpieces (‘The Darkest Star’, ‘Lilian’, ‘Macro’), they certainly hold their own.
So too does his ‘Suffer Well’, which sits very comfortably alongside the faster, more immediate tracks that open the album.
Gahan’s contributions ensure that instead of the album being filled out with a couple of misfiring tunes from Gore, as had previously been the norm, ‘Playing The Angel’ is packed with impressive songs — and, the result of this new competitive spirit within the band, equally committed musical performances.
- This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.