Review: Depeche Mode – Delta Machine

Crafty bastards, lowering the bar like that and then producing an album not half as bad as many were starting to anticipate.

Signs were not good. A mediocre-at-best fallow period for the band that ran from the dispirited, and ironically-named Exciter to the dull and forgettable Sounds of the Universe, seemed to continue with the four minutes of anticlimax that was “Heaven” and chatter was everywhere that we were in store for another dud. Yet this long time fan of the band (going back to 1984) can report that this newest effort is…not as dire as was expected. Faint praise? Maybe. But given the recent state of affairs, it’s not  a little thing.

Perhaps the most influential electronic band of all time, DM wrote many of the rules the genre follows to this day. For decades they were the epitome of cool. Martin Gore was an unequaled songwriter, Dave Gahan, as smooth a frontman as they come, Andy Fletcher, a hand-clapper extraordinaire. The list of brilliant, unforgettable songs too long to fit in the bandwidth we can access. Yet recently we’ve seen tired production and weak songwriting and a stale attempt to be a “rawk band” with increasing helpings of guitar and an ever-growing drum kit front and centre at concerts. What they’ve managed to do on Delta Machine is dilute some of their more recent judgement lapses and excesses with some of what reminds us of what once made them so great.
First off: What (still) doesn’t work. Let’s just get it out of the way. This blogger loves blues. Next to electronic music, probably his favourite genre. Electro blues, even better. Alan Wilder has managed the marriage better than most on the last three Recoil albums. Yazoo wrote the playbook on how to make the combination work back in the day. When done well, it can be a beautiful thing. Depeche Mode do not do blues well. It comes off as forced and insincere. And there’s a lot of it on this album (hence the title), and it weakens the effort as a whole. Next, the songwriting – Gore seems to have lost the ability to write a hook. The songwriting here isn’t what one could call inspired, and in some cases, comes off as just weak. Third – speaking of Gore – there was once a time when a Gore vocal would result in a genius song like “Somebody”, “It Doesn’t Matter”, “The Things You Said”, “Blue Dress” or “Home”, but in recent years his vocal contributions have been the weak points of DM albums, and the droney, downright crappy “The Child Inside” is no exception. WTH Martin? You’re capable of so much better.

So, does any of it work? Yes indeed. One definitely feels the influence of Christoffer Berg and Flood, and that influence is most welcome. What’s interesting, if not downright revelatory, especially for a band that seems so set on denying its history, is how much of the album harks back to early Mode. The sounds on the album, even on songs that seem weak from a songwriting perspective, are fresh and old-school at the same time. “Broken”, “My Little Universe”, “Should Be Higher” and the tremendous “Soothe My Soul” (just to name a few) have elements of very early Depeche Mode songs, and it’s lovely to experience that sensation again. It makes the album feel like an enjoyable discovery rather than the cloying desperation of other recent work.

As to Gahan, hard to say how much of it is studio trickery, but he’s in fine voice. In the recent Letterman mini-concert he sounded pitchy and off-key but on record he soars to exciting places vocally. And as a songwriter he is more confident and relevant than he’s ever been in collaborations with Kurt Uenala (“Should Be Higher” is possibly the strongest song he’s yet penned).

Taken as a whole it’s a solid piece of work, far better than either this blogger expected and than recent work would have suggested. It’s far, far from perfect, but I think the goalposts have moved this decade. Will they ever create another “Violator” or “Black Celebration”? Probably not, but it’s not realistic to expect it. If they are willing to experiment while showing a willingness to go back and draw upon what once made them great they are in the most solid, advantageous position they’ve been in a very long time. We’ll take it.

Watch: Heaven

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8 Responses to “Review: Depeche Mode – Delta Machine”

  1. Good review, agree with almost everything you’ve written. I personally hate the blues elements on this album, but otherwise it has some nice touches. I like the blips and bleeps that Berg brings to several of the tracks. I just wish it had a denser sound like Fever Ray does.

  2. Your review seems pretty accurate. Honestly, I only listened to enough of “Delta Machine” to be convinced it was more of the same (but, indeed, better than previous releases) before dismissing it as another disappointment. Dave has never sounded better. If only he were singing songs I want to listen to. The lyrics are terrible; the tunes and production are desperate and uninspired. Martin Gore’s voice, once welcome and angelic, is simply cloying, bordering on grating, now. Maybe my musical tastes have changed as much as DM’s style has, and the two are no longer compatible.
    The new Mesh record is ten times better, at least.

  3. I really enjoy reading your blog, and I agree with the majority of your views. Here’s one area where were on different wavelengths. I’ve commented before on Depeche Mode – particularly on the topic of their output since Songs of Faith and Devotion, and about their latter-day work being my favourite. I’ve been a fan since Speak & Spell, but have considered DM as my favourite band only since Violator. As each album since was released, I’ve found myself in a recurring state of bliss – none stronger that with Delta Machine, which I consider to be in a tie with Violator as their best work. Dark. Brooding. Melodic. Sinister. Just the way I like it! And yes, bluesy. I personally think they do bluesy just fine. It’s their own brand of bluesy, and nobody does it better. It’s such a shame that so many hang on to the old DM and don’t allow themselves to just enjoy the great DM and their continued relevance. In fact, I dare say that had Delta Machine been released by an up-and-coming, lesser-known artist, it would have been destined to be your album of the year; it’s my album of the millennium!

    • Let’s not exaggerate. Delta Machine isn’t on the same level as Violator/Songs or Faith and Devotion/Music For the Masses/Black Celebration. The songs simply aren’t on that huge level. Also the production.

      I don’t see anything on Delta Machine as strong as “World in My Eyes” or “In Your Room” or “Never Let Me Down Again” or “Stripped”, for example.

      Delta Machine is a good album, better than SOTU but less good than Playing the Angel.

    • Eldritch Says:

      When you wrote this message, how many days had you spent with the album? A week or two at most, right? Isn’t that a bit too soon to declare the album as good as Violator or the album of the millennium?

      I think DeMa is a very good album, a creative rebirth after the turgid SOTU. But personally I feel it’s not up there with BC, Violator or SOFAD. And: even if I did feel that this is DM’s best album, I wouldn’t dare to declare it until at least six months had passed. In the internet era people are too quick to make huge statements about art. You have to let the album settle in, let the novelty wear of, let it grow or shrink in your mind — and only after that you’re qualified to really declare this as your album of the millennium. That’s at least how I feel.

  4. The fact is Delta Machine is simply a chill-out LP poorly dressed… Shame on u DM.

  5. I agree with some of that, but disagree with other parts.

    I think its a very good album, but lacks a standout single such as Precious or even Wrong.

    In saying that, I very much like the production, Dave’s songs are all very good, and while The Child Inside isn’t my favourite track off the album, there is the Mart sung Always bonus track which is better in my view.

    We aren’t getting anything truly new from DM, I don’t think its fair to expect that after 30 odd years, but I think the album is about on par with Playing The Angel, perhaps better.

    Highlights: Welcome To My World, Secret To The End, Should Be Higher, Alone

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