Sounds of the Universe
Pleasure its acquisition, its experience, its discontents has always
mattered to Depeche Mode, now almost 30 years into a career of turn-ons and come-downs.
But Sounds of the Universe, the groups 12th studio album, is about
something more common and less complex: the joy of running in place.
Here the band Dave Gahan, Martin Gore, Andy Fletcher is in familiar orbit:
rigorous songwriting, largely by Mr. Gore; melancholic and desperate singing by Mr. Gahan;
and propulsive production thats accented with industrial friction. But while it
lacks the fragility of 1984s Some Great Reward or the earned attitude of
1990s Violator, its unmistakably an attempt at revisiting the
past, admirable either as an act of defiant stubbornness or tenacious commitment.
Its listenable too, in much the way a lost-tapes collection would be. Mr.
Gahans ache on Miles Away is pleasantly burred, and the arresting
multitracked vocal at the outset of Wrong recalls the bands pop
breakthrough Personal Jesus. Best are the moments in which the group toys with
notions of sex and power, constructing virtual parodies of early Depeche Mode on
Corrupt (I could corrupt you/It would be easy, Mr. Gahan sings.
Watching you suffer/Girl, it would please me) and Hole to Feed,
which outlines the occasional emptiness of physical desire.
Still, even at its most imaginative, this is seamless Depeche Mode filler, music that
could be made by any number of acolytes. But the band undermines itself with a handful of
gestures no tribute-payer would take up: the senseless minute-long feedback run that opens
the album, or the whimsical instrumental blurt Spacewalker. At times, like on
Little Soul, Mr. Gahan sounds sleepy, struggling to be more than rote. Quite
unintentionally in its steadfast fealty, this album serves as a reminder of how deeply the
lessons of new wave have been ingrained in pop notably, of late, in R&B and
hip-hop production. In that context particularly, Mr. Gahans chilliness and
commentary feel like ancient poses. Everyone else hears the same sounds but has learned to
let loose. JON CARAMANICA