Depeche Mode has stretched their rosary-colored glasses view across nearly three decades, outlasting bigger-selling synth-based bands. From chart-topping singles and multi-platinum records to band defections and suicide attempts, Depeche Mode displayed a resilience and constitution found only in Olympic athletes. Whether the band remains relevant is up for the music masses to decide. What separated their wheat from the chaff of their peers was their alchemy of redemption as a constant lyrical theme and music bathed in sex-funk-dance grooves. The combination won them a worldwide legion of fiercely devoted fans, which, based on their continued ability to sell out stadiums and arenas, has not waned.
On album number 12, Depeche Mode continues exploiting their strengths: Martin Gore’s dense, synth-heavy compositions and David Gahan’s pleading, sultry vocals and unusual melodies. Sounds of the Universe dispenses with the more user-friendly, pop-oriented, big-chorus songs of 2005’s Playing the Angel in favor of denser, consternating material. Though not redefining their identity or attempting anything new musically, the band continues to update past creative explorations.
Some of the songs here are reminiscent of their ‘80s output. “Fragile Tension” shares more in common with the kitsch synthbop of their pre-Music for the Masses material; it’s an almost playful song, with dancing melodies creating a lighter mood than most of the glum tone that overpowers the rest of the album. “Little Soul” is darker, more akin to the bolder musical statements begun on their 1984 breakthrough Some Great Reward. And then there are the album’s tuneful, more radio-friendly moments. Lead single “Wrong” throbs at a languid pace with bulky synth lines; “In Sympathy” is more fluid and airy, with a dance-oriented beat and bright chorus (the song’s guitar melodies are reminiscent of Violator‘s sharper edges).
Universe‘s biggest flaw is its over-reliance on plodding electro beats, and much of the latter half of the record blurs into an impervious thicket of repetitive synth lines and crooning vocals. It’s those vocals that provide most of the album’s treasures, particularly on the brooding “Peace,” and on “Jezebel,” on which Gore demonstrates his considerable pipes on his requisite lead-vocal track (one wonders how it took the band nearly three decades to pen a song with that title). Gore and Gahan conjure the usual demons here, reveling in the space left in the wake of fractured relationships. On “Miles Away/The Truth Is,” Gahan sings, “With all your superstitions and empty lines/I could be just like you, withdrawn but alive.” Perhaps locating the cause of his—and Gore’s—seemingly hopeless search for salvation on “Wrong,” he says, “There’s something wrong with me chemically/Something wrong with me inherently.”
Though not as electrically alive as Angel, Universe demonstrates that Depeche Mode is not content to coast on the coattails of their back catalog, or with the occasional big-ticket tour. They might not be affecting musical culture the way they did in their prime, but at least half of their latest effort is as strong as anything they’ve written.