On "The Darkest Star," a track from Depeche Mode's latest album, Playing the Angel, released this past Tuesday, singer Dave Gahan addresses an "eternal outsider." "Star" is about a specific loved one, but the lyric reaches out to the majority of the band's fanbase. These devoted listeners have followed Depeche Mode and shared its gloomy outlook on life, set to synthesizers, for almost 25 years.
Recently, Depeche Mode seemed to have fallen off the path with 2001's Exciter, a sparsely orchestrated and ultimately underwhelming effort. The world has changed substantially during the group's four-year hiatus, and the new music reflects this. The result is a dark and brooding work, the best Depeche Mode album in at least a decade.
The band initially exploded in 1981 with the upbeat track "Just Can't Get Enough," but in later albums explored a darker sound with gothic themes that remain today. The later hits, including "Never Let Me Down Again" and "Personal Jesus" were downhearted odes set to booming hooks.
Angel's opener, "A Pain That I'm Used To," is another exemplary entry in that category. It begins with a deafening howl reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails and keeps the industrial tone throughout the track. It is anchored, however, by a tight dance beat and maintains the appropriate balance between distortion and catchiness.
The song is immediately trumped by "John the Revelator," a twist on an old blues tune. Depeche updates the track with some blistering synth courtesy of keyboardist Andy Fletcher, but keeps it grounded with a gospel chorus and the thumping delta stomp. Each of these elements is introduced gradually, leading the song into an eardrum-shattering crescendo.
One of the few mistakes made with Angel was not releasing "John" as the first single, instead choosing the lackluster "Precious." But, the lyrical content of "John" might have turned some listeners off. Gahan calls out the titular false prophet that "by claiming God as his only rock / He's stealing a god from the Muslim, too / there is only one god through and through." Despite an earlier single from the 1984 album Some Great Reward about a vengeful Lord called "Blasphemous Rumours," conquering problems with drug addictions led the band to bring its renewed spirituality into the limelight. The result on Angel is "The Sinner in Me," a penitent look at its narrator's wrongdoings.
Depeche Mode is not without its own sins, either. Main songwriter and guitarist Martin L. Gore has had a streak of lyrics dealing with themes of submission (sometimes sadomasochistic), most blatantly in Reward's "Master and Servant." Angel is peppered throughout with these ideas. "Pain" includes the lament "I don't see who I'm trying to be instead of me / But the key is a question of control ... All this running around, well it's getting me down / Just give me a pain that I'm used to."
These abuses are also evident in the straightforward "Lillian": "Look what you've done / You've stripped my heart / Ripped it apart / In the name of fun." Depeche Mode's brilliance is that these tracks would spiral listeners into incurable depression if the background were not so uplifting.
Although Depeche Mode sounded advanced during its heyday, new technology has been vastly beneficial for the group. Albums like 1986's Black Celebration sound tinny and flat compared to the deep and expansive Angel. The harder moments have the type of bass lines that reverberate from iPod headphones. Much of the credit should go to Angel's producer, Ben Hillier, who brought this fuller sound to Depeche Mode-an improvement over the thin instrumentation of Exciter's Mark Bell.
But, Angel misfires during its softer moments comparatively. The aforementioned "Precious" has a solid foundation for a compelling single, but plods along quietly and goes nowhere. "Macro," one of two tracks sung by Gore, is the weakest cut, both because Gore's voice does not have the guttural tone of Gahan's, and because the light music behind only reflects this.
The exception is Angel's closer, "The Darkest Star," which effectively juxtaposes a simple piano line with the occasional sonar pulse or electronic crackle, supplemented by an emotional croon from Gahan, to create a haunting finale.
The majority of the album, however, sticks to the successful rock format. As a result, Depeche Mode manages to pull off a trick that many bands cannot perform: adapting to the times style-wise without leaving behind the original parts that made the group special. This skill will help Depeche Mode produce more great albums like Playing the Angel to stay in fashion but still faithful to its roots.