The world just can't get enough
By: Bryan O'Toole
Issue date: 10/20/05 Section: Arts and Entertainment
On "The Darkest Star," a track from Depeche Mode's latest album,
Playing the Angel, released this past Tuesday, singer Dave Gahan
addresses an "eternal outsider." "Star" is about a specific loved one,
but the lyric reaches out to the majority of the band's fanbase. These
devoted listeners have followed Depeche Mode and shared its gloomy
outlook on life, set to synthesizers, for almost 25 years.
Recently, Depeche Mode seemed to have fallen off the path with 2001's
Exciter, a sparsely orchestrated and ultimately underwhelming effort.
The world has changed substantially during the group's four-year
hiatus, and the new music reflects this. The result is a dark and
brooding work, the best Depeche Mode album in at least a decade.
The band initially exploded in 1981 with the upbeat track "Just Can't
Get Enough," but in later albums explored a darker sound with gothic
themes that remain today. The later hits, including "Never Let Me Down
Again" and "Personal Jesus" were downhearted odes set to booming
Angel's opener, "A Pain That I'm Used To," is another exemplary entry
in that category. It begins with a deafening howl reminiscent of Nine
Inch Nails and keeps the industrial tone throughout the track. It is
anchored, however, by a tight dance beat and maintains the appropriate
balance between distortion and catchiness.
The song is immediately trumped by "John the Revelator", a twist on an
old blues tune. Depeche updates the track with some blistering synth
courtesy of keyboardist Andy Fletcher, but keeps it grounded with a
gospel chorus and the thumping delta stomp. Each of these elements is
introduced gradually, leading the song into an eardrum-shattering
One of the few mistakes made with Angel was not releasing "John" as
the first single, instead choosing the lackluster "Precious." But, the
lyrical content of "John" might have turned some listeners off. Gahan
calls out the titular false prophet that "by claiming God as his only
rock / He's stealing a god from the Muslim, too / there is only one
god through and through." Despite an earlier single from the 1984
album Some Great Reward about a vengeful Lord called "Blasphemous
Rumours," conquering problems with drug addictions led the band to
bring its renewed spirituality into the limelight. The result on Angel
is "The Sinner in Me," a penitent look at its narrator's wrongdoings.
Depeche Mode is not without its own sins, either. Main songwriter and
guitarist Martin L. Gore has had a streak of lyrics dealing with
themes of submission (sometimes sadomasochistic), most blatantly in
Reward's "Master and Servant." Angel is peppered throughout with these
ideas. "Pain" includes the lament "I don't see who I'm trying to be
instead of me / But the key is a question of control ... All this
running around, well it's getting me down / Just give me a pain that
I'm used to."
These abuses are also evident in the straightforward "Lillian": "Look
what you've done / You've stripped my heart / Ripped it apart / In the
name of fun." Depeche Mode's brilliance is that these tracks would
spiral listeners into incurable depression if the background were not
Although Depeche Mode sounded advanced during its heyday, new
technology has been vastly beneficial for the group. Albums like
1986's Black Celebration sound tinny and flat compared to the deep and
expansive Angel. The harder moments have the type of bass lines that
reverberate from iPod headphones. Much of the credit should go to
Angel's producer, Ben Hillier, who brought this fuller sound to
Depeche Mode-an improvement over the thin instrumentation of Exciter's
But, Angel misfires during its softer moments comparatively. The
aforementioned "Precious" has a solid foundation for a compelling
single, but plods along quietly and goes nowhere. "Macro," one of two
tracks sung by Gore, is the weakest cut, both because Gore's voice
does not have the guttural tone of Gahan's, and because the light
music behind only reflects this.
The exception is Angel's closer, "The Darkest Star," which effectively
juxtaposes a simple piano line with the occasional sonar pulse or
electronic crackle, supplemented by an emotional croon from Gahan, to
create a haunting finale.
The majority of the album, however, sticks to the successful rock
format. As a result, Depeche Mode manages to pull off a trick that
many bands cannot perform: adapting to the times style-wise without
leaving behind the original parts that made the group special. This
skill will help Depeche Mode produce more great albums like Playing
the Angel to stay in fashion but still faithful to its roots.