Music Review: Depeche Mode's Sounds of the Universe

by Rick Rockwell

First, a confession.

Throughout much of the 1990s, Depeche Mode provided the soundtrack for many of this writer’s nights. Especially, weekend nights. In clubs from San Pedro Sula to Mexico City to Los Angeles and Chicago and beyond, the Mode’s dark, throbbing electronic soundscapes proved to be the perfect backdrop. Violator, Songs of Faith and Devotion, and Music for the Masses are ingrained in the memory cells.

But Depeche Mode and this writer have both changed since that era. The disappointing releases of Ultra (1997) and Exciter (2001) ended the band’s days as one of the biggest in the world, although the stripped down, reformed three-member Mode is still a force to be reckoned with, if just for the band’s sonic legacy.

Right away, the first single from Songs of the Universe, “Wrong” has this electronic trio in superior form. Dave Gahan’s tortured and dour vocals recall the best of the band’s ‘90s sound. If the lyrics hadn’t been penned by the group’s principle songwriter Martin Gore, they might serve as a self-reflection on Gahan’s descent into heroin addiction, just one of problems that beset Depeche Mode and sapped the group of some of its creative force when it had reached the pinnacle of the music world. For those who remember Depeche Mode only as one of the lightweight synth-pop hair bands of the early 1980s and haven’t kept up since, “Wrong” shows off the minor key muscles the group developed with its evolution on 1986’s Black Celebration.

But the single proves to be a bit of musical slight of hand, because much of Songs of the Universe is far from the Mode in its prime. The standard album’s 13 tracks (the band is also releasing a deluxe edition with at least 18 tracks, hidden tracks, remixes, demos, and videos) and more than 57 minutes of music seem bloated and bifurcated. Some of Songs of the Universe is a throwback to light early Mode synth-pop: “Jezebel” with Gore singing lead is the most obvious example. Some is a nod to influences such as Germany’s Kraftwërk. Other numbers seem to be the band denouncing its dark, dangerous, decadent past. “Peace” is the most obvious example of this approach: although the sonic backdrop is foreboding at first, the lyrics are an uncommon (for this band) bid for serenity. Gahan sings: “I’m leaving bitterness behind this time/I’m cleaning out my mind….” But without that cathartic tension that often underpins the Mode’s work, the material falls flat as does the song and much of the rest of the album. On “Peace” think of Depeche Mode making songs for yoga sessions, and you’ll get the atmosphere the song evokes. Gack!

Although that’s the nadir of the band’s 12th studio release, only a few other tracks rise anywhere close to “Wrong” in stature. Unlike most of the album, “Perfect” weaves in the Morricone-inspired guitar that the band bequeathed to an entire generation of indie rockers after Violator became so popular. The closer “Corrupt” (with its delayed reprise hidden instrumental) also has more of the band’s old lyrical and sonic sensibilities woven together into the fabric. But these moments play like afterthoughts.

If this is what growing older, more mature, and more level-headed is all about, one cannot dismiss Depeche Mode’s growth in a sane direction. Indeed, Depeche Mode may still be making music for people of this writer’s age to listen to after 2 a.m., but just a reminder that most of us are now asleep at that hour. Unfortunately, the Mode’s new music now works perfectly for accompanying that activity.

(The promotional photo of Depeche Mode is from the band's label EMI. The band will open its world tour in Los Angeles on April 23 with a special outdoor performance for Jimmy Kimmel Live! on ABC. To see the video for "Wrong," please check below.)

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