Depeche Mode, reasons driving force Martin Gore, are “a subversive pop band, able to get away with anything”. Theirs have always been twisted songs of faith and devotion, sex and death. Musically not much has changed either, the past decade spent trying to reach the heights of best work ‘Violator’ and ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’.
That hasn’t been easy. Heroin addiction, attempted suicide, temporary death (Dave Gahan); alcoholism, divorce, writer’s block (Gore); and utter lack of musical talent (Andy Fletcher) have conspired against the trio. But on ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ they leave all that behind. A cleaned up Gore came to the black celebration with three times more songs than usual. Gahan, fresh off the success of second solo album ‘Hourglass’, offered up his best tunes ever. And Fletcher even played a bit of bass guitar.
Certainly they cling to the now familiar formula — music that blend ’80s synths with rock drums and guitar; a crooned lounge act ballad from Gore; a pointless instrumental interlude; a few too many filler tracks — but ‘Playing The Angel’ producer Ben Hillier captures the band exactly as they are: reinvigorated.
The dirty groove ‘Wrong’ is as addictive as it is repetitive; the grandiose ‘In Chains’, with its stabbing guitar riff, soars to the same heights as 1993’s ‘Higher Love’; the rumbling ‘Hole To Feed’ showcases the best of both sleazy and vulnerable Gahan; and the gritty ‘Fragile Tension’ shows today’s electropop kids (yes, that’s you Brandon Flowers) how it’s done.
Finally, they’re not trying too hard. The slinky, stripped down ‘Jezebel’ is Gore at his most vulnerable since ‘One Caress’; ‘Sympathy’ is simply effortless; ‘Perfect’ almost lives up to its title; and the slow marching ‘Come Back’ is all quiet confidence.
But, despite the chief songwriter’s claims, Depeche Mode can’t quite get away with anything. The floaty ‘Spacewalker’ serves no purpose other than time killing; ‘Little Soul’ has little substance; and the slow burning ‘Corrupt’ comes dangerously close to flickering out.
Yet, after ten years of trying, Gore, Gahan (and Fletcher) are closer to their best than ever before. Now that’s pretty subversive.
- This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.