Over its 29-year-career beginning in 1980 in a post-war new town outside London, Depeche Mode has endured to become one of the most revered and influential acts in modern popular music. Adopting electronic gear early on set the group apart from the pack and it was soon selling out stadiums chiefly due to the songwriting talents of Martin Gore, the production wizardry of Alan Wilder, frontman extraordinaire Dave Gahan and the… ahem… accounting/managerial skills of nonmusical member Andrew Fletcher.
The sound has varied with time, all the while remaining firmly nested in an electronic cocoon, bouncing from synthpop to dance, ambient to rock, techno-soul to techno-glam. On 2005’s Playing the Angel, the band revisited its rock side, fronted by the chart-friendly single “Precious,” one of the group’s strongest melodies in years. Never content to sound the same, the new disc Sounds of the Universe, does a 180-degree turn that is simultaneously bluesy, futuristic and retro, not to mention Depech Mode’s most noncommercial album since 1986’s Black Celebration. This is both good and bad.
Opening with the slow burning “In Chains” which clocks in at almost seven minutes, it’s obvious Depeche Mode has no desire to revisit the radio-friendly pop market — been there, done that. If anything proves that point, it’s first single “Wrong” which is a slice of synthetic doom, brilliantly coupled with a harrowing video by Patrick Daughters. (If you haven’t seen it yet, hit Youtube.)
“Fragile Tension,” a good contender for future single, is notable for its old-school synth sounds. The band has not sounded this analogue since 1982. Given that the writing is much more sophisticated than in 1982, it’s an interesting approach. Often accused of being too gloomy, on the mid-tempo techno-spiritual hymn “Peace,” Gahan sings, “Just look at me/ I am walking love incarnate/ Look at the frequencies of which I vibrate/ I’m going to light up the world,” Depeche Mode never sounded more uplifting.
“Come Back” blends industrial grit with some of the most beautiful harmonies Gahan and Gore have ever done. While there’s a bit of filler on here (“Spacewalker,” “Jezebel”), the only fault being that some songs (“Little Soul”) never quite seem to take flight, which seems mainly due to the focus of mood over melody. The song “Perfect” almost is; and “In Sympathy” is one of the most sonically brilliant songs the band has ever released.
Interestingly, the deluxe boxed version of Universe, released simultaneously, is an innovative way of getting around the download problem. This deluxe version contains a plethora of extra tracks, remixes, two hardcover books and DVD content, which makes it fairly tempting even to the average fan and yields the download version as a footnote. It will be interesting to see how many other bands decide to go this route.
Sounds of the Universe is a mature album with beautiful highs and few lows; it takes repeated listens to sink in, but when it does, it’s more than worth it.