Review: Depeche Mode – Sounds of the Universe

Likely the most anticipated new album release of 2009 in the electronic community, there has been much discussion around the direction Depeche Mode would next head in. And the album itself will fuel that discussion, though in some respects, won’t necessarily resolve it.

Full disclosure first, DM have long been my “favourite band” (or more specifically, my most influential band  – since 1984 they were the band that gave rise to my interest in electronic music and after “Shake the Disease” was released in 1985, when I was but 14 years old, I was totally enslaved to their magic. I dressed and styled my hair like Alan Wilder, I could have told you the running time of every song they had released, I pushed my worn DM cassettes onto anyone who would deign to listen. I was a DM junkie). Any review of their material has to be viewed through that prism.

Since Wilder left the band in 1995, Depeche Mode have now released four albums, and the quality and consistency of those albums was a marked drop of the material they had released previously. While songwriter Martin Gore is and was their heart, and singer Dave Gahan, their soul, Wilder was their head and with him gone they seemed unable to figure out what kind of band they really were. Ultra, was a solid album with lots of memorable songs that have stood up well over the years but it was uneven and sometimes confused. Exciter was excerable. Bad songwriting, lackadaisical performance and vocals, badly overproduced and lazy all around. Playing the Angel was better, more focused and a fun experiment with sound but sounded muddy, was lyrically underwhelming (“John the Revelator” and “Precious”, aside) has aged startlingly badly.

Which brings us to Sounds of the Universe. Now pushing 50, what have they got left? What remains in their bag of tricks?

The first thing that strikes the listener is the sound, not the lyrics, not the melody, not the vocal delivery, but the downright remarkable sound they’ve achieved on the record. Gore has talked about his renewed passion for analogue synths and it’s clearly in evidence. From the opening minute-and-a-half classic synth intro leading into the bluesy riff of “In Chains” to the closing notes of the delightfully droney “Corrupt”, the sound of this album harkens back to the early 80’s. And it’s wonderful to hear. The synths wash over the entire album, the programmed drums sound like nothing other than programmed drums. Even Gore’s guitar work, which remains an obvious crutch for him, now bends around notes sounding like something other than the same guitar chords, and instead plays with sound as much as the synths themselves. Based on the unique sound alone (which through it’s gaze back in time ironically makes the album sound fresher than 99% of the music released thus far in 2009), it may be their best album since 1990’s Violator. Nowhere does the sound grab you by the lapels and scream, “this is the way electronic music is supposed to sound, bitch!” then the ode to post-excess living “Peace”, the choice track from the album, sung in true duet by Gore and Gahan.

Vintage synths aside, the songwriting remains uneven, not just on the part of Gore’s work but that of Gahan (who, much as on the last album contributes three songs here). “Hole to Feed” is something of a cacophonous mess, “Jezebel”, Gore’s only vocal lead on the album continues the unfortunate trend of weak Gore-sung ballads, now spanning three albums, and “Perfect” is just plain dull.

On the other hand lead-off single “Wrong” gets stronger with each listen. Gahan belts “I was born in the wrong house / with the wrong sign / in the wrong ascendency. / I took the wrong road / that led to / the wrong tendencies. / I was in the wrong place / at the wrong time / for the wrong reasons / on the wrong night / of the wrong day / on the wrong week. / I used the wrong method / with the wrong technique” in a cry of regret of choices made that could apply equally to Gore or Gahan. “Come Back”, meanwhile makes some of Gahan’s strongest songwriting to date and shows a songwriter maturing before our eyes. And the album closes with the creepy “Corrupt”: “I could corrupt you/it would be easy/ Watching you suffer / girl, it would be easy.” Gore can still write a disturbing lyric with the best of them and it feels like coming home again.

It’s important to note how strong of voice Gahan is throughout the album. On “In Chains” his raspy wail is perfect counterpoint to the blues influence they are finally starting to get right; on “Peace” he hits a falsetto note, the likes of which I’ve never heard him attempt (when they take the song on the road shortly we’ll see how much the note was digitally aided…), and it makes the listener soar in tandem with the notes hit; his full-on rock out on “Miles Away/The Truth Is” is as good as he’s been in his rock star mode.

Over all the album is as much a relief as it is a triumph. They remind us on Sounds of the Universe, that they finally get it – they can blend the rock elements they’d long been chasing with an electronic purity I genuinely thought they left behind some time ago and can do so as well as any band in the business. 

Sounds of the Universe is a far from perfect record but listening to it made me glad they’ve stayed together to give us this pretty damn good one, and for a moment there it was all could do to not slip into the old leather jacket, spike the hair a little and get my gloom on. They’re still with us, standing strong and we’re better for it.

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2 Responses to “Review: Depeche Mode – Sounds of the Universe”

  1. Sir Ozwald The Great Says:

    You either like music or you don’t. All this nonsense about things being “far from perfect” is in my opinion a load of rot.

    This album does something inside for me as with their previous albums. some people will never be happy unless an album sounds identical to the one before. What is the point in making a new album if this is the case? If this is the case, then they may as well be the same as everyone else.

    Depeche mode are an entirely unique band. Every release seems to incorporate new eerie noises and the atmospheres created are increadible. I always ask myself before each new album the question of how on earth can they produce a new song with as much originality as the last? Somehow, they always manage it.

    I find it impossible to benchmark songs. For me it is a case of that was fantastic or that was crap. Sounds of The Universe is fantastic.

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