Sounds of the Universe
[Mute / Capitol; 2009]
"They're a singles band," sniffed a friend, dismissing Depeche Mode's
influential career. Even if one were to agree with that blithe assessment, there's no way
Depeche Mode could be dismissed as just a singles band, given their track record on the
charts and in the clubs, a string of hits that have hung in there to varying degrees of
ubiquity. Sure, the singles sometimes remain standouts, but the rest of the tracks--
especially on albums like Music for the Masses and Violator-- are hardly filler. For
better or for worse-- and those who miss the band's more subversive early days may think
it's for the worse-- Depeche Mode have gotten in the habit of crafting complete
Yet it's still unclear where Depeche Mode fits into today's pop world. The group is
currently selling out stadiums around the globe, which attests to its ongoing popularity,
and unlike many other acts of its vintage still manages to attract fans that span
demographics. But Depeche Mode are also a far cry from the pioneers they once were, let
alone the leaders they grew to become. It's almost as if the band has stepped aside to a
parallel track, content in its place; more cachet, more cool, more money-- they'll take it
if they can get it, but they sure don't need it.
So, yes, the days of earth-quaking, Zeitgeist-shifting Depeche Mode awesomeness may likely
be behind them, but that doesn't make Sounds of the Universe any less worthy of the band's
legacy. If the album as usual seems to have little or no bearing on anything outside the
group's own, um, universe, the wheels and gears are definitely still turning and churning
in the Depeche Mode machine. Martin Gore can still be counted on to deliver the goods, and
recent songwriting convert Dave Gahan is impatiently nipping at his heels. Gahan's
singing, meanwhile, is as strong as ever, always the perfect vehicle for Gore's lyrics,
and the glue that holds together even the disc's most diffuse songs.
And really, Sounds of the Universe is, at 60 minutes and 13 songs-- the group's longest
player to date-- relatively loose and sprawling, as likely to drift as hit hard. While the
group's brought back producer Ben Hillier, Sounds of the Universe is a very different
album from its predecessor, Playing the Angel. "In Chains" begins like how one
imagines it would feel to be on the receiving end of a SETI signal before stretching into
an epic-- satisfyingly dramatic and dynamic despite its leisurely seven-minute gait-- and
deceptively full of activity despite what feels like an intentional ear for minimalism.
"Hole to Feed", a Gahan composition, is similarly busy yet spare, bounding along
a sci-fi take on the Bo Diddley beat while Gahan (his troubled history public record)
draws on double meanings and innuendo to project the band's trademark narcissistic
The song doesn't know how to end, but that just makes the entrance of "Wrong"
that much more theatrical. That song-- the single-- is short but deliciously sour,
hearkening back to the band's synthier days without losing the layer of grunge it's
carefully cultivated post-Violator, a strategy also reflected by "Fragile
Tension" (which wouldn't have been out of place on the generally noisier Angel).
"Little Soul" and "In Sympathy", however, once again echo old-school
minimalist Depeche menace and pop smarts, respectively, which makes "Peace"--
sounding like Kraftwerk gone dreamy gospel-- that much more striking. It's a stirring
encapsulation of all of Depeche Mode's different sides and qualities, reminiscent of all
those other great album tracks lurking throughout the group's catalog.
Yet a funny thing happens next. With the strong but still oddly static Gahan composition
"Come Back", the album starts to feel a little fractured, and by the time the
effortlessly melodic "Perfect" comes around, followed by the casually industrial
"Miles Away/The Truth Is", the synth-lounge "Jezebel", and the fuzzy
closer "Corrupt", it's almost as if we've embarked on another album entirely.
Either that or the band's simply left us to find our way through their space. Ending with
a brief, queasy reprise tease of "Wrong", Sounds of the Universe concludes
anticlimactically, an echo of its promising start.
Joshua Klein, April 22, 2009