Friday, April 3, 2009

Review Time: 'Sounds Of The Universe', Depeche Mode

Sometime in the late seventies when Depeche Mode were just an electronic glint in Vince Clarke’s eye, the Rolling Stones began to pack it in as a genuine creative force and fall into the comfort of a repetitive album-tour-break schedule that has been repeated ad nauseam in the intervening years. The album release morphed into a promotional advert for the tour, not to exist as a new artistic statement. The Stones have revelled in the lucrative field of self-parody since then, and it became apparent on 'Playing the Angel' in 2005 (or was it 'Exciter' 2001) that Depeche Mode felt they had been around long enough to rest on the laurels of their admittedly outstanding discography and rake in the touring revenue.

So, coming from that position, its hard to get completely overjoyed at the prospect of new material. ‘Playing the Angel’ was an important step for inter-band relations in that there was a healthy working relationship for the first time in ages. It proved to be an enjoyable album, with a couple of gems, but I was never able to buy into the 'return to form' hype that surrounded the release.

That album also established something else, Dave Gahan secured three songwriting credits on the album before he agreed to walk through the studio door, a formula repeated here. Also returning is producer Ben Hillier who seems to be the master diplomat needed to get things done, even if his production lacks the essential bite to take the songs onto a higher plateau.

There’s been a lot of talk in interviews that Martin Gore had become ‘obsessed’ with buying old synthesisers and drum machines during recording and that these old toys have somehow shaped the album with retro sounds heralding a return to their exclusively electronic past. The raft of analogue equipment overlayed with the washes of Gore’s guitar and Kraftwerk-esque arpeggios is a refreshing blend, but the final mix is so amateurish (sadly a hallmark of post-Alan Wilder Mode) that the effects are rendered void. This could be forgiven if the melodies materialised in sufficient quantity, but the songwriting never takes flight.

The opener ‘In Chains’ is an anthemic Gore-blues in the style of 'Higher Love' that threatens to blow the roof off with an opening blast of industrial synths followed by a deliberate sub-sonic bassline, a wonderful beginning, but things get bogged down quickly with the mediocrity of the tracks that follow.

Tracks like ‘In Sympathy’, ‘Perfect’ and 'Little Soul' are sleek, glossy additions to the Mode songbook, but the hollow nature of the bouncy pop soon becomes tiresome. Elsewhere ‘Jezebel’ and ‘Corrupt’ are archetypal tales of power and grime that Gore could write in his sleep, even though the second of these tracks comes within a whisker of true greatness, you're left wishing for that belting chorus that never arrives. 'Fragile Tension' almost apologises for its very existence with an insipid drum pattern and inoffensive chord sequence. Even Gahan's luxurious baritone, can't make up for the paucity of genuine hooks.

Things momentarily rise above the run of the mill with the double-punch ‘Peace’ and ‘Come Back’. The former is a straight duet between Gahan and Gore with a Beatles channelled melody, a major highlight that strangely captures the zest of their sometimes fractious relationship, while the latter is an outstanding Gahan penned, slowburning epic. The first single 'Wrong' is a real return to the eighties, the kind of minor key, doom infused stomper that the band do so well, full marks go to Martin for his best lyrics in donkeys years.

This time next year ‘Sounds of the Universe’ will be a footnote in the DM history, never daring to be anything more than advertised. While the seeds of a solid Depeche Mode album are present, the distinct lack of ambition prevents it from achieving true classic status. As a way of apology, the 'Tour of the Universe' is coming soon to a town near you, which will allow you to catch their spellbinding live show, and may even give life to some of the more jaded moments on this album.

6/ 10


diodeladder said...

Although their back catalogue is more consitent to what fans of the band expect - dark, lots of minor keys and songs of sex, religion and heartbreak. I still think that Depeche Mode have gone in a very exciting direction since Mr Wilder. It's a different direction, granted.. but I don't think they're attempting to create the same feel. I've been a fan of theirs since around 1996 and welcomed "ultra" as my first new album after digging deep into their past. I think the misconception from fans is "good try but not quite there". You may argue that post-Wilder, lyrics and production has suffered. There is a certain whiff of cheddar around their lyrics since "ultra" but then that's been the case on numerous Mode tracks a la "Somebody", "It doesn't matter two" and "Higher Love". They are a different band since Alan left I know, but what makes Depeche so great and why they still have such rabid fans is that they still sound like Depeche Mode. It's something that can't be measured by scrutinsing lyrics or sounds - it's an aura they have that comes through on every release. Fans love video clips in the studio because they see a band enjoying themselves still making albums and still tinkering with synths after 30 years. We like that Dave and Martin are healthy and take the group seriously still. I reject the Rolling Stones comparison because this isn't about money. This is about a band who still love music, love their fans and yet take their time over their albums which no doubt isn't as easy to do now when you've covered so many areas. Someone cruelly said on Youtube "this band could get back on track without Alan Wilder, Martin just needs to get his heart broken and Dave needs to get on the drugs again". they've been a 3 piece now for as long as alan was with them give or take a year. We fans are not dumb and would not continue to buy into them if they churned out sub standard dirge. There's alot to sit back and remember and enjoy. Thing is they're still putting out wonderful material, it's just different to 1983-1994. Alan Wilder is a great and influential man and I fully accept their sound has changed - certainly not for the worst.

Mad As Hell said...

I disagree with the author. I felt a thrill upon hearing this album that I just did not feel for Playing the Angel. It's a great album. One thin I love about Depeche Mode putting out a new album is that it causes me to go back and listen to all of their previous work. The entire catalogue holds up beautifully. I also think it is unfair to characterize Depeche Mode as sellouts like the Rolling Stones, who are only in it for the money. The Mode are not showing up in the tabloids or accepting cheesy corporate deals like the Stones and U2. They maintain their artistic integrity and that should be acknowledged.