Thursday, May 16, 2013

Depeche Mode: Delta Machine (2013)


As a construction and in pleasurable (non-)effect, every Depeche Mode album since, uh, let's say the departure of Alan Wilder has been essentially the same. Look no further for a case in point than the end of their latest mildly successful return to the well: closing track "Goodbye" is more or less a remake of every closing track from every Depeche Mode release. It even references "Clean" directly. Talking of in-between years, these titans have been on a rather strict four-year release and tour and side project and vacation model, and this workhorse of a band cannot ever be accused of being inconsistent. They're a devoted bunch, and it's pleasing in a way that you can count on certain things every post-election year since George Bush, Sr. lost: Dave Gahan excitedly racing up the steps with the results of his latest vocal lessons, Martin Gore pretending to care about "riffs" for a while, Andy Fletcher doing whatever it is he does (planning the vacations?), Anton Corbijn designing very Anton Corbijny cover art, and Flood onboard as a "mixer." I have no quarrel with Mode's presence in the marketplace; I'm glad they're still around and clearly enjoying what they do, and finding it profitable and rewarding. But consistency is no guarantee of inspiration, and after a three-decade run of albums that were at least interesting, this is the closest they've come to a dud. But it's a respectable dud.

It's not a weak effort because it's absent of the revelatory punch of Exciter or Playing the Angel, for even in relatively lackluster moments like Ultra and Sounds of the Universe, the band was always admirably ambitious. Significantly, beginning with Angel the band has added another major voice to its reliable fold: that of producer Ben Hillier, a programmer reared on classic DM singles who faithfully pursued the essence of the band's darkest and most beautiful noises on his first two records with them. Even at their best, though, one distressing trend since Hillier came aboard has been the group's sacrifice of any semblance of innovation. Their records still explore trends in modern dance music -- there's even a touch of dubstep here, kind of -- but post-Wilder, it seems always to have been in the guise of following rather than leading.

Nevertheless: the diminishing returns of Delta Machine, which sadly now crystallize what seems to be a trend (and we won't get to prove it's not for another four years), are not Hillier's problem. Those, by the way, are diminishing returns both in light of Sounds of the Universe and, more significantly, the way it sounds a little dumber and limper each time you spin it -- this from a band whose intricacies were once enough that we could fill C-90s with consistently weird and entertaining remixes. But no, it's surely a question of songwriting. Yet again, Gore is sharing the stage in this respect with Dave Gahan, whose great test here is contributing the all-important first single. The first single of a given Depeche Mode LP is, I don't have to tell you, a big deal in their world -- it seldom bears much relation to the "sound" of the album but, from "Personal Jesus" onward, has been designed to lay down a sort of "we're back" gauntlet. How depressing that "Heaven" is probably the weakest first single from a Depeche Mode album, uh, ever, assuming we're not counting the turgid "Martyr," which was issued to promote a compilation. It sounds like latter-day R.E.M., of all things, incredibly plodding and all too willing to let its sort-of-competent melody slide down the hill into nothingness.

Gahan's other tune in the first half is no more auspicious. "Secret to the End" yearns, just yearns to connect, but its hook is just too weak -- the entire record almost seems determined at times to shirk pleasure in favor of, frankly, a dismal musical nihilism, something that was a little fresher in 1993 when Songs of Faith and Devotion attempted it. Faith and Devotion, although it consists of some wonderful songs, nearly derailed the band with its irksome self-seriousness and rockist flogging, but I'd never have called it a blot on the resume, which that "shoulda been you" refrain assuredly is. Vocally and otherwise, Gahan seems completely beholden to his desire to imitate big-brother Martin; why? His tunes on Playing the Angel were magnificent, and I don't know what happened after that.

We should be gentle with Gahan, though, for Gore's often no better here -- neither Hillier's tweaks nor Gahan's perfectly capable singing can rescue something so draggy as "Slow." I coulda sworn they already had a song called this (was thinking of "Slowblow," maybe?) and moreover that it sounded just like this; it's verging on self-parody with its hamhanded pseudo-sensuality, and the lyrics give the impression of being lifted from a volume of unpublished erotica by Jack Prelutsky. But at least "Slow" is a shit track through and through -- what's more tragic is "Broken," a clear attempt to reconnect with the fanbase that has actual propulsion but then... alas, one-chord wonder, no hook.

It's entirely possible that the band and Gore's entire purpose with this project was to sink into themselves and issue something that gave no real concessions to the audience, but it's hard to have fun listening to something like that -- and I actually do listen to this band to enjoy myself; they may have been reputed for years to be outlandishly depressing, but in fact their peak work was witty and sexy. It's unreasonable to ask a thirty-three year old band to match their peak period, I realize, but I don't think all this dour lily-fingered indus-pop is the best use of their talents, aged or not.

There has yet to be a Depeche Mode record that I didn't enjoy in part. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Delta Machine has any hidden gems, but it does have a few cuts decent enough to fit well in the library. I like Martin Gore's center-stage piece "The Child Inside," another weird weightless thing like "When the Body Speaks" and a bit of a treat as such. It still seems more like b-side material, and I'm unnerved by the weird popping sound in the right channel, but it shows off a less blankly macho kind of weirdness that I appreciate. (Are we still facing the consequences for Dave Gahan's lost grunge weekend in the mid-'90s?) "Soft Touch/Raw Nerve" is some ridiculous garbage, a totally tasteless jock jam that sounds more than slightly like something the justifiably forgotten alt-rock band Filter would've formed into a mild hit, but it actually picks up a groove and turns it all the way around and is uncharacteristic enough to be a pleasing novelty slash pop concoction. The second single "Soothe My Soul" is sort of cute; it reminds me of ZZ Top! But my favorite cut is also the bounciest, at least as bouncy as this rattle-bones gets, and was intriguingly also written by Gahan: "Should Be Higher" boasts another silly chorus and gives a priceless mental image of Gahan leaping to reach a high microphone and belting out one clause at a time, but the bridge is cool and the tune is a fine fake backwoods stomper that favorably recalls Talking Heads' "Swamp."

Hillier, again, has a good handle on what sounds complement these voices well. But he can't do much except go with the flow in terms of songwriting, so now all his up-to-the-moment wizardry is in service of some dirgelike stuff. As a consequence, the recordings are tricky and playful but have no real bite or magic, something that was ominously but only slightly suggested on Sounds of the Universe. There are tweaky charms to spare on "My Little Universe" but it's annoying and breathy and, really, just another half-song musically. "Alone" is the quintessential example of Hillier's helplessness; it has enthusiasm in its pound pound pound pound glitter, but it's for naught -- there's no air in it, and the melody has only a wisp of presence.

By far the most tiresome change that's overtaken Depeche Mode's music post-Wilder has been one that initially seemed like an asset -- Dave Gahan, once rock's most famous deadpan, is now a technically quite impressive singer. But he and Gore both got the blues, and it's lethal. The increasing histrionics in Gahan's voice and Gore's songwriting as they both fall in love with Mississippi John Hurt and John Lee Hooker records is both charmingly weird and an ever-increasing blight on their hallowed dance music legacy. Because they just can't pull this shit off, man. "John the Revelator" was a great single back in 2005, but it should not have been the beginning of an ever-deepening fixation that the group can't properly carry beyond a vaguely reductive novelty. I suppose I don't have to tell you what the Delta of the title comes to imply, right? The tip of the iceberg here is "Angel," one of the most tragically bad songs in the catalog; it's maxed out electro-blues that sound like an Atari game set in an acne-faced programmer's stereotyped impressions of "the Bayou." Haven't we done this before? Yeah, you could argue it reaches all the way back to "Personal Jesus," but it's getting worse, man. The Blind David Gahan shtick has got to go, guys. It makes you sound luuuudicrous.

Even apart from the blooze problem, which is honestly the sort of thing that rock bands have struggled with longer than most of us have been alive, on the first moments of this record we have an intriguingly modernist Hillier backing track and then in comes Gahan to slather his sleazy choirboy thing all over "Welcome to My World." That song's a great mood piece, with a colorful build even if its hook doesn't really go anywhere... but Gahan's more than competent vocal is one of those that just seems like an ill fit to this group, this music. Something about all of his ever-increasing command of affected emotion seems actually less emotional than, you know, "Master and Servant" or "A Question of Time" or even "Precious," which retained an ideal balance of old barking Gahan and melodic troubadour. Hell, stay even closer; compare "Broken" to even something as recent as the sublimely menacing "Ghost." Better his croon than his gritty roar, but... I miss the sneer. I miss the guy who talked about how much happier he was stocking shelves in 101. Clearly that's no longer true; Gore has gone through a divorce, last I heard, and for all I know Gahan's personal life may be a mess, I don't really keep up with that stuff, but the three of them are clearly in just about the most perfect position you can be in within a pop music context. They don't have to record anything now, or tour, to secure their legacy and live comfortably, they choose to do so and if they just end up with an inconsequential mood piece, well, add it to the pile. These dudes have it made, and more power to them; they deserve it. But maybe that's what makes all this carefully cultivated pain and misery hard to swallow by now.

Sounds of the Universe (2009)

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