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'Sounds Of The Universe'
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“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 group’s 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 that’s accented with industrial friction. But while it lacks the fragility of 1984’s “Some Great Reward” or the earned attitude of 1990’s “Violator,” it’s unmistakably an attempt at revisiting the past, admirable either as an act of defiant stubbornness or tenacious commitment.

It’s listenable too, in much the way a lost-tapes collection would be. Mr. Gahan’s ache on “Miles Away” is pleasantly burred, and the arresting multitracked vocal at the outset of “Wrong” recalls the band’s 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. Gahan’s chilliness and commentary feel like ancient poses. Everyone else hears the same sounds but has learned to let loose. JON CARAMANICA


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