CD Review of Sounds of the Universe by Depeche Mode
Depeche Mode: Sounds of the Universe
Recommended if you like
Pet Shop Boys, Gary Numan,
The ‘80s
Depeche Mode:
Sounds of the Universe

Reviewed by James B. Eldred


any have said that Depeche Mode have never recovered from Alan Wilder's departure from the band in 1995 – and after listening to the horrid Ultra and the bland Exciter, they’d have a strong case. But while Playing the Angel wasn't a great album, its highlights, including the epic opener "Pain That I'm Used To" and the beautiful ballad "Lilliam" rivaled the band's greatest works of the ‘80s and showed that perhaps the we shouldn't count the synth-pop veterans out just yet.

Now to prove that point beyond a shadow of a doubt, the group is back with Sounds of the Universe, a retro-loving return to the band's classic style, forgoing many of the harsher and rock-driven techniques found on the previous three albums. This is the first record by the band to sound like a cohesive experience since Wilder left the group, full of interesting experimentation, classic analogue synthesizers, and powerful, show-stopping vocals by David Gahan.

Just like Playing the Angel, Sounds of the Universe starts strong, with the nearly seven-minute synth-epic "In Chains." Slow without being bland, its throbbing beat and subtle guitar riffs combine the best of old-school Mode with the rock leanings they experimented with on later albums.

It's a great opening, but it's quickly trumped by "Wrong," which one of the strongest leadoff singles the group has ever released, and probably their best single in over a decade, "Wrong" is a slow-building, pulse-pounding work of genius that pumps the blood with its constant beat and ever-building intensity and power. No matter what anyone thinks about the rest of the album, "Wrong" is classic Depeche Mode, and on future greatest hits collections, it will hold its own next to "People Are People" and "Never Let Me Down."

Nothing else on the album comes close to it, but that's not for lack of effort by Gore and the rest of the group, who also wrote several songs for Sounds of the Universe. Just like he did on Playing The Angel, Gore loosens his creative reins for three tracks to allow Gahan, keyboardist Andy Fletcher, and somewhat-official member Christian Eiger (he plays drums on both the album and on tour, but isn't technically a member for some reason) pen the tracks "Hole to Feed," "Come Back," and "Miles Away." Of those three, "Come Back" is far and away the strongest, with pulsing, machine-like sounds serving as an appropriate backdrop for Gahan's best vocal performance on the album, the only track other than "Wrong" where he really lets himself go and shows emotion. Clinical detachment has always been the dude's specialty, so there's nothing wrong with it, but his more sensitive side comes through with great effect each time he pleads for his unnamed lover to "come back to me." "Miles Away" isn't half bad either, and the somewhat unusual synthesizer effects make up for the bland lyrics about a detached lover, but "Hole to Feed" is the weakest of the trio, its forgettable sound made even more unremarkable by the fact that it's squeezed in between "In Chains" and "Wrong."

Depeche Mode

Gore has to share the blame for the weaker tracks, because "Jezebel" (which features Gore on vocals) and "Corrupt" close out the album in a clear case of saving the best for worst. "Jezebel" sounds like a lounge act number with a cheap drum beat, and "Corrupt" is a just plain silly song about corrupting a potential girlfriend, made even sillier (and slighty creepy) by the fact that everyone in Depeche Mode is pushing 50.

Even with the weak finale, Sounds of the Universe is a solid addition to the band's already impressive discography and their best in over a decade. This just isn't the band's best since Songs of Faith and Devotion, it's better than that album. And while they aren’t back up to Violator form just yet, for the first time in a long time, it sounds like they could get there.

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