Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Depeche Mode, Sounds of the Universe

A review

Maybe they can't help it. As bands start getting on a bit, they enter a pattern of releasing albums every four years, like a reflex mechanism. Depeche Mode are a case in point. Since 1993's Songs of Faith and Devotion, they've been getting together every four years on the dot for a CD and a world tour.

The good news is that, unlike many of their peers, money and fame have hardly tarnished their inspiration. Quite the opposite, in fact. 1997's Ultra and 2005's Playing the Angel, in particular, are amongst some of the strongest albums of their career.

Sounds of the Universe starts as promisingly. Kicking off with an almost pipelike high pitched analog sound, opening track In Chains soon morphs into vintage mid-tempo Depeche Mode, straight from the school of Walking In My Shoes, and with Dave Gahan at his most soulful and impassionate: I know what you're doing to me/ I know my hands will never be free/ I know what it's like to be/ in chains.

Hole to Feed, centred around an intriguing Nine Inch Nail-esque beat, is one of Dave Gahan's three songwriting contributions to the album. Wrong, the first single, is possibly the only song justifying the reviewers' comparisons with the Personal Jesus era. Gore's lyrics are half way between black comedy and self-therapy. Whichever the combination, it works a treat.

Things get even better with the dark mock-techno of Fragile Tension, rendered particularly endearing by Gore's slide guitar. The vocal melody may owe a credit or two to Babybird's You're Gorgeous (seriously), but four tracks on and Depeche Mode's new album is on course to be one of their best. Too good to be true?
Well, here's where the big slump kicks in. Little Soul has already been recorded before. The kind of epic filler that has populated every Depeche Mode album since Music for the Masses.

And while In Sympathy is simply unmemorable, Peace is almost ridiculous, bringing back memories of Alan Partridge singing Gaudete by Steeleye Span ("it'll blow your socks off!") to his receptionist Jill.

The insipid mid-tempo feast continues with Come Back and the instrumental Spacewalker until things pick up again with the excellent Perfect. Mooted as the next single, it unravels around a vintage 80s synth line which is stunningly enhanced by Gore's tasteful guitar and a Dave Gahan on top form. And it's Gahan who calls the shots again on his Miles Away, while the atmosphere turns distinctly darker on Martin Gore's own Jezebel, which contains the priceless quip "You're morally unwell".

The beat of closing track Corrupt could have leapt straight out of a Depeche album circa Some Great Reward-era, until Gore's distorted guitar kicks in with a more 90s feel, almost as if the band where masterfully playing cut and paste with their own back catalogue.

That Depeche Mode remain the masters of electropop is undisputed. That they're still capable of penning two or three fantastic tracks to add to their immense repertoire is also a fact. The risk however, is that they may have hit -at long last- a dead point in their career. Sounds of the Universe adds little to their legacy. By no means a bad album, but not worth a four-year wait.


SilentSister said...
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SilentSister said...

"PEACE" is an amazing track, and just underwent a remix contest sponsored by Beatportal recently, and is actually the next slated release from "SOTU". Very good material out there now of it, I can assure that! I love this entire album, and find one of the weakest songs to be "Miles Away" however, I adore the lyrics. There is definitely a change in vibe on this album, but I think, as always, it's in the air.