Saturday, January 8, 2011

Depeche Mode: Sounds of the Universe (2009)



Depeche Mode was right about everything. They never got the credit for it but their humanely adolescent, tongue-in-cheek melodramatic goth-synthpop crafted the electro-sound that falls over us like a curtain every place we walk today. Over three full decades, they've remained one of the most consistently adventurous (and critically underappreciated) of all mainstream bands. Maintaining this quality control has had its price; since the departure of musical backbone Alan Wilder fifteen years ago, they've slowed to a crawl and managed four LPs. Luckily, they've saved all their excesses and rough-hewn ideas for solo records and side projects, and have managed to pile up so much good Depeche Mode material that by 2009, there was an excess of roughly a dozen and a half songs that arguably could have made the final release. Those leftovers were saved for various collector releases (which we'll cover in the future), but it's interesting to note how specific and calculating the band still is about what ends up on their full-length releases.

Sounds of the Universe is, unlike the band's prior two albums (Exciter and Playing the Angel), not a revelation. It is the subtlest DM album in some time, but like their boorish 1993 pseudo-rock effort Songs of Faith and Devotion, it seems designed to make a specific impression. It aims to surprise, but all of its bombast comes off as a retread, while the chugging dance songs impress as much as ever and the quieter cuts buried at the back end actually offer something New from a band that seldom displays discomfort with its traditional sound.

The remarkable facet of Depeche Mode has long been just how expert they have become at crafting Depeche Mode music; it has never stopped sounding inspired, and by 2005's jaw-dropping dinosaur New Romantic classic Playing the Angel, it wasn't unreasonable to suggest they were at their peak. Better yet, the times have moved with them. The analogue synthesizers and skittering beats of Sounds of the Universe sound like trend-mongering, but they actually symbolize their status as trailblazers. Everyone wants to sound like early '80s Depeche Mode these days, including Depeche Mode.

There's a change, though, and not just the newly dirty, compressed emphasis on the age of those synths. These are the styles of our techno times, but they're fitted with a curious aggression. The band's toyed with this rather laughable macho expression before, in a sometimes laughable ("I Feel You"), sometimes delightful ("Dead of Night") fashion, but never before have they attempted to match this grunting pomp with the sort of keyboard sounds they were toying with back when they were Vince Clarke's backing band. Though the nuances and joy in these songs grow clear with time, it's not as interesting a match as one hopes. The single "Wrong" unnecessarily buries its candy-shop catchiness in mud and spittle. Despite being twisted enough from that premise to be interesting, "Miles Away" is equally odd. Even the two opening tracks, "In Chains" and "Hole to Feed," squander their lite-gothic funk with pointless bombast. Still, give these fiftysomethings credit for continuing to find new ways to grow and tweak this far into the game; they certainly don't have to.

Since Universe is a more outwardly experimental record than Playing the Angel and maybe even the shiftier Exciter, it's mildly disappointing that it doesn't work as well, and that the most rewarding songs are the ones that were probably easiest for the band to come up with, even as they fit impossibly well with current club music. "Fragile Tension," "In Sympathy," and "Perfect" are propulsive, distant dance music in the vein of any number of late '80s DM classics; they stand up with their predecessors and kick, swing, and all the rest. They're even balanced by the typical Mode sex jam move, "Little Soul."

As long as they're still putting out bangers (yes) and they're still funny (mm-hmm: "You know your right from wrong / At least to some degree"), who gives a fuck? But Universe does offer tantalizing glimpses of a future Depeche Mode I wish we wouldn't probably have to wait another three or four years to meet. "Come Back" continues Dave Gahan's stratospheric growth as both vocalist and writer. His singing is top-caliber for most of the album, wringing new feeling from those consonants he once barked out like a man drearily possessed. And Martin Gore sings "Jezebel," the most original tune in the catalog for a while -- sinister, surreal, new, it's not quite "Death's Door" and not quite "When the Body Speaks," but it's as sideways and unexpected as either. Pretty great that they can still do that.

Playing the Angel came equipped with "Precious," the best single Depeche Mode had issued for fifteen years; on an album full of gems, it was a juggernaut. Now, on this promising record with a few gems and a few intriguing oddities, we have another killer: "Peace" is as anthem, an answer, a protest, a private solace -- more personal and somehow larger than anything they've done before. Without a reversal of any of their blipping teenaged eccentricities, it's universally powerful and packs a wallop.

Subsequent to my initial exploration of this album I heard some of the peripheral releases containing its corresponding outtakes. Curiously, there are a number of songs that match "Peace" in quality if not impression. They seem to belong on the LP more than some of the cuts that made it. Depeche Mode's always had strong b-sides -- their singles are more like very strong EPs, always worth paying for -- but this might be the first time that their commitment to mood has been so devout they sacrificed the best material they recorded. "Esque," "Oh Well," and in particular the magnificently lurid "Ghost" are stronger than a number of the album cuts here, and the entire set of outtakes is surprisingly strong. Knowing this puts a hamper on Universe even as it becomes more ingratiating with time and falls into place in the Mode catalog.

It's exciting, all the same, that the band seems headed in a specific direction, and that this involves them stretching beyond what we know they're capable of. Not many artists have made stronger material from running in place; by refining their sound rather than revolutionizing it, they've long managed an alarming consistency that outmaneuvers the identity crises of their peers. Every Mode record from Violator on has been preceded by a single that deliberately oversold how much of a "departure" the album would be. This is the first time that crazed first single, "Wrong," was an accurate suggestion of new avenues traveled or at least glimpsed on the LP. That's pretty exciting, and a bit scary.

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