Sunday, April 12, 2009

Review: Depeche Mode - Sounds Of The Universe

The signs were promising. Fletch telling the press the band had so many songs they'd had to shove the extra ones on the deluxe edition, Martin raiding eBay for vintage analog gear, Dave continuing to contribute songs - actually co-writing one with Gore for the first time.

The title was promising - a seemingly deliberately excessive pun on 1987's classic Music For The Masses suggesting an ambitious project was in the offing.

The preview was promising. An absolutely storming first single, "Wrong" mixes an amusing lyric with a great Gahan vocal, concert-designed shouty chorus bits and atonal synth burps and metallic clanks straight out of an Emulator II.

The beginning is promising. "In Chains" starts with the sound of half a dozen vintage pieces of kit firing up - an electronic orchestra tuning before a performance. As the cacophony fades away, Gahan slips into the picture with a vocal that recalls Songs Of Faith And Devotion's "Higher Love" - not the last time on this album your memory is jogged by a sound or a mood from an earlier work.

Yet, four or five high points aside, the album slips by over the course of the next 50 mid-tempo minutes with surprisingly little impact. The most striking first impression is that, while the band has apparently secured the songs, the equipment and the services of Anton Corbijn (phoning in the album cover design once again - stick to the photos, Anton), they've forgotten to pack the tunes.

Too much of Songs Of The Universe slips by like the least memorable songs off the second halves of Playing The Angel and Exciter. It's competent but monochromatic and uninventive; echoes of earlier, better efforts undermining some songs (Gore's only solo vocal effort, "Jezebel", is Violator's "Blue Dress" with little emotion and even less melody); and a paint-by-numbers approach harming others ("Corrupt" is "A Question Of Time" plus "Halo" minus tunes, "Come Back" is perhaps the epitome of generic late-period Depeche). The decision to keep producer Ben Hillier in tow for the second album in a row hasn't helped - eBay synth mania notwithstanding, this is essentially Playing The Angel part two - sonically vastly less interesting than Gahan's last solo effort, and a pale aural shadow of the Wilder years.

The principal problem appears to be something of an autopilot approach. The hope that Gahan contributing songs would add a new dimension to the band hasn't happened, mainly because he seems to keep his innovation for his solo efforts, furnishing DM with songs written in a very DM style. You used to be able to rely on at least one experiment per album, from the acapella lust of "I Want You Now" to the gospel pleading of "Condemnation" or the industrial grind of "Barrel of a Gun." And Martin Gore's vocal contributions used to be something more than tuneless melodrama - I can't think of a classic Gore-sung song since 1994's "Judas."

That's not to say the album is a disaster by any means. Both songwriters are lyrically inventive, even if the prevailing tone still seems to be rehab-influenced, a subject that Gore, now an ex-drinker himself, appears to have embraced as well as Gahan. Gahan's voice continues to improve with age, subtler in approach and richer in character. And there are some knockout songs - "Wrong", present here in identical form to the single, is the highest energy DM single since "I Feel You" and probably the best for a decade. "In Chains" is perhaps a minute too long, but a great first track with percussion reminiscent of 1984's Some Great Reward and an obvious gig opener; the moment at 3:35 after the middle-eight when the percussion drops back in is an album highlight.

"Fragile Tension" and "In Sympathy" are both terrific, the former a spiritual cousin to Violator's "Waiting For The Night" and the latter sporting one of the album's few traditional choruses, sung jointly by Gahan and Gore. "Peace" starts out like "See You" before suddenly taking a left turn into Wild-era Erasure, and "Hole To Feed" sees Gahan reach equal status as a songwriting partner, a great lyric married to an aggressive, percussive beat.

A competent effort then (and most of this stuff will slip seamlessly into the live experience), but ultimately a slightly undistinguished and conservative one. I must be getting old - this must be how it would have felt as a Stones fan when faced with Steel Wheels. You don't want the band to forget who they are and release a total and complete fucking shitpile on the order of, say, The Cure's self-titled 2004 abomination, but a willingness to take some risks and play with the form a little more would be welcome; perhaps the band needs a more adventurous producer to help rediscover their muse. Review forthcoming for the elaborate box set, which includes several extra tracks, remixes and a disc full of career-spanning demos, but for now, Must Try Harder: 7/10.

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