Album Review: Depeche Mode – Sounds of the Universe

Depeche Mode has always had a peculiar place among the annals of music. The band’s breakthrough single, 1981’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”, contains one of the most memorable (and arguably annoying) synth melodies ever.  Nearly 30 years later you can’t help but pogo to it anytime it comes on. However, the majority of the band’s catalog (most notably its string of late-80s and early-90s signature releases) lives in a limbo between shoegazer and pop, though obviously closer to the latter. And under every anthemic chorus lies a dark, if not sinister, edge.

With 1997’s Ultra, the band dove headfirst into grim waters that resisted their earlier pop leanings and gave in to the moody sounds of the era’s mainstream rock. Since then they’ve worked with new producers: lead singer Dave Gahan ventured into more songwriting, songwriter Martin Gore has given up some of those responsibilities, and they’ve become something of a mainstream cult band. Everyone knows them and they play to sell-out crowds, but the music has changed, it isn’t the regular Top 40 fare it once was.

On its most recent release, Sounds of the Universe, the band has abandoned its most radio-friendly ways and succumbed to that macabre tone that made listeners feel they were finally understood twenty years ago.  The album’s defiant first single, “Wrong”, has Gahan recounting every ill-fated step of his life.  With no remorse, he chants, “I took the wrong road that led to the wrong tendencies / I was in the wrong place at the wrong time / for the wrong reason and the wrong rhyme.” Set against music reminiscent of a carnival from Hell, “Wrong” signals an album by a band that brings its style into 2009, rather than bringing 2009 into its style. The results are decidedly mixed.

When the method works, it’s almost startlingly good. “Fragile Tension” mixes screeching guitar at a lazy tempo to produce a track that ranks among the band’s best. It’s sweetness wrapped in melancholy, a sound that the band last successfully achieved on 2001’s “Dream On”.

Sounds of the Universe falters when the rhythm drops too much out of the mix and the lyrics are forced to carry the tune. Although “Come Back” isn’t a poorly written song, it feels empty without more layers. Erratic frequency blips splattered over stuttering electronic drums give the track a DIY feel that might work for Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, but here it pales in comparison to other tracks.

Contrast it to “Miles Away / The Truth Is”, another slow groove ripe for dancefloor remixes. It’s reminiscent of Ultra, only it lacks the angst that was effective–although sometimes forced– on those tracks. Here, Gahan’s teasing growl is sexier than it is intimidating, which isn’t easy with a voice as low as his.

In what could have been an exercise in filler, “Spacewalker” is a nearly two-minute instrumental tune of atmospheric, sci-fi sounds. I still can’t understand why it makes sense two-thirds of the way through the album, but it works. On the other hand, the Gore-led “Jezebel” is over four minutes of slinky music that should have been an instrumental interlude. His vocals are fine, and refreshing amidst a sea of Gahan, but “They call you Jezebel for what you like to wear / you’re morally unwell / they say you’ll never care for me” is so expected, it’s a waste. The music, on the other hand, has a delightfully playful tone that the lyrics overstate.

Ultimately, the album reaches some impressive highs and flirts with some disappointing lows, though there’s nothing detrimental enough to ruin the entire experience. At thirteen tracks, the band could have sliced off a few to create a tight ten track album. While what we’re left with is a little bloated at times, it’s still exciting and definitely worth the listen.

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