One of the more curious phenomena in pop music is that when an artist puts out a
good album after issuing a series of middling to poor albums, the good album is
heralded as a great album. Depeche Mode’s newest, Playing the Angel, is a
textbook example of this. The phrase “the band’s best work since Violator”
is being thrown at this album from all directions. But let’s keep things in
perspective here; Songs of Faith and Devotion is still the band’s best
album since Violator. If Playing the Angel must be “the best
since” anything, it’s the band’s best album since Alan Wilder left the group in
1995, though that is not to say the band doesn’t still miss him terribly.
One noticeable difference between Angel and the band’s last few albums is
a considerable boost in energy. Ultra was dreadfully dull, and Exciter
only lived up to its title on two songs, but the louder-than-God synth line that
opens Angel’s leadoff track “A Pain That I’m Used To” couldn’t be a more
literal wakeup call if it tried. The song actually works as a sequel to “Black
Celebration,” with its chugging beats, minor chords, and bleaker than bleak
lyrics. “I’m not sure what I’m looking for anymore / I just know that I’m
harder to console,” singer Dave Gahan laments. And that’s just the song’s
opening line. The band steps up the offensive on “John the Revelator” (not a
cover of the traditional gospel song), invoking the name of the last Apostle for
a jumpy track with a scathing lyric that may or may not be a thinly veiled
attack on a certain US President who shall go nameless. “John the Revelator,
he’s a smooth operator / It’s time we cut him down to size / Take him by the
hand, and put him on the stand / Let us hear his alibis.” Sure, the lyric
scheme itself is a little dopey, but damn, Martin Gore has grown some onions.
Gore wasn’t the only band member to grow a pair lately. Dave Gahan would only
agree to do a new Depeche Mode album if he could contribute songs to it, a major
act of chutzpah given that his solo album, Paper Monsters, was an utter
bore. To Gahan’s credit, his songs here are good ones; “Suffer Well,” with its
dirty guitar line, is a distant cousin of “A Question of Time,” but his best
contribution is “Nothing’s Impossible,” an optimistic lyric attached to a pitch
black melody. He may be saying “even the stars look brighter tonight /
Nothing’s impossible,” but the mental image the music evokes is of Gahan
lying in a grave while someone shovels dirt onto his soon-to-be-lifeless body.
The addition of Gahan songs to Angel made Gore step up his game as well.
“The Sinner in Me” has an irresistible cascading melody in its chorus, followed
by some gnarly guitar work and programming in the break. Gore even takes a
couple lead vocals for the first time in what feels like ages, on “Macro” and
“Damaged People.” His voice sounds thinner than usual, perhaps because he’s
using his upper range. He also dips deep into the vibrato, as if he’s trying to
out-Feargal Feargal Sharkey, a fruitless cause if ever there was one.
Now let us get to the topic of the album’s sound. Remember that blaring synth
riff on the first track, that one that sounds like it’s about to blow the
speakers, even at a low volume? Well, it’s just a little bit too loud. This is
what they would call a “hot” mixdown, where the sound pushes the needles
uncomfortably far into the red. There are several other tracks on Angel
that sound the same way. An audio production student who turned in a mix like
this would get an F. Why on earth would Depeche Mode do such a thing?
Because Alan Wilder wasn’t there to stop them, that’s why. Wilder was widely
considered to be the band’s sonic architect, and the remaining members still
haven’t figured out how to sculpt the songs the way that Wilder did. Here’s a
hint: it’s the percussion, guys. Sometimes it was the sound of pumping
gas or a car engine firing up; other times it was a hubcap spinning to a stop.
There was always something going on in the background that made Depeche Mode’s
songs so unique and memorable. Heck, the catchiest part of “People Are People”
is the first 30 seconds, where the bells, electro-tambourine and kick drums
collide. Those moments don’t exist in Depeche Mode records anymore, which is why
their albums have felt so flat. They try to make up for it here by blasting your
eardrums to smithereens, when a simple can opener fed through a sampler would do
Playing the Angel is a perfectly good album, but the simple fact is that
without Wilder, Depeche Mode will never be the band they once were, and to
compare a new album to their halcyon days is both unfair and pointless. That
band simply doesn’t exist anymore. There’s another band with a lot of the same
members using the same name, and they’re pretty good. But they’re not the same.