[Mute / Columbia, 2013]
Let’s be honest – once a band has been around for almost 35 years and has released a dozen albums, we’re not asking much from them anymore. An occasional tour, a festival reunion, maybe a half-assed album just to let us know they still care a little. But what if that band is also the most influential, and arguably, most popular and successful electronic pop band of all time? What if they never broke up in the first place to have that reunion? Well, then it’s different. With Depeche Mode, it’s always different. There are just higher expectations of these British trailblazers and all their synthesizers and keyboards.
Three months into the year and new albums from Nick Cave, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Billy Bragg and Johnny Marr have already hit and there’s new Pet Shop Boys coming in June. 2013 may end up going down as the Year of the British Geezers’ Return (well except for Cave, but he’s Australian, so close enough). And while these records are solidly passable affairs at worst (Bowie, Marr), and real successes at best (Bragg, Cave) they all fail at least a little to capture the past while moving forward at the same time. This is a vague and tricky concept, for sure, but it is one that Depeche Mode pulls off with Delta Machine.
Delta Machine, Depeche Mode’s 13th album and their first since 2009’s Sounds of the Universe, is a little bit Violator, a little bit Ultra, a little bit (pleasant surprise) blues, and a little bit right here and now – quite a cocktail. The beauty is that they haven’t missed a beat and still sound contemporary. Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher imbue the album with their trademark sexy synth sound while blending American Delta blues and a modern sound. Depeche Mode has always had a future sound as if they were at least one step ahead of everyone else working in their genre and Delta Machine is another in a long line that fits the category.
It doesn’t take long to realize that Gahan ‘s voice still sounds great – but only when he’s in the register of “distinctive purr” with occasional bass tendencies. This is on display throughout the album but perhaps nowhere better than on “Welcome to My World.” The song starts with an ominous industrial synth that calls to mind Muse’s recent dabble with dubstep. Then Gahan’s seductive vocals enter and the song settles in to a perfect album opener. It’s an announcement, a preparatory statement – hark, listener, you may think we’ve been gone too long or could never come back as strong. But “All the drama queens are gone / And the devil got this made / He backed up and fled this town / His master plan delayed.” Yet we, Depeche Mode, remain at the forefront as relevant as ever.
Gahan has always been at his best when he’s trying to seduce us with his slick delivery but after 13 albums, his voice starts to show some weak spots when he strays from the purr. In “Angel,” for example, when he really goes for the growl, it’s a little rough. It’s hard to take the metaphors of Sunday preachers and baptismal cleansing seriously as he rotates between a plaintive come-hither voice and guttural, spitting vocals. I don’t know if it’s coincidence, but “Angel” and the next song on the album, “Heaven” are the biggest missteps on the album. The latter song’s weakness is sin compounded because it is also the first single released off Delta Machine.
With all the well-crafted songs that Depeche Mode has written over the years, one of the hallmarks of the band was to stock every album with at least one high-quality stadium sing-along. Some Great Reward had “People are People,” Music for the Masses had “Strangelove,” Songs of Faith and Devotion had “Walking in My Shoes” and so on. Delta Machine follows the tradition with two of these – both “Broken” and “Soothe My Soul” are catchy, instantly pleasing earworms that will be sung alongside “Personal Jesus” at arenas throughout their 2013 tour. “Broken,” in fact, is a radio-friendly song that harkens back to something Vince Clarke might have written during the Speak and Spell-era but decided to save for Yaz or Erasure. People just like to sing along to anthems about “When you’re falling / I will catch you” (see also Billy Idol, Cyndi Lauper and Ingrid Michaelson). “Soothe My Soul” is the best song on the album and while it is being released as the second single, it should really have been the first single off of Delta Machine. It’s classic Depeche Mode in the Ultra or Violator mode – yet still feels fresh.
The blues influence on Delta Machine really rears its head during “Slow.” It has a very bluesy intro – “slow, slow as you can go” and the song is very slow. Listening to the song feels like wading through molasses while a blues guitar flirts with buzzing bees and a smoky, hazy drumbeat. What’s nice is that they play with a blues influence both here and on album closer, “Goodbye,” but never let it overshadow or dominate their true electronic strengths. The placement of “Goodbye” is yet another smart choice by the band as this, like the opener, is perfectly suited to serve as Delta Machine’s closing track. And while ostensibly a song of lost love and recovery, “Goodbye” feels like Gahan is singing about his own drug and health recovery – “Now I’m pure / Now I’m clean / Goodbye pain.”
Depeche Mode has gone through many changes and stages over the past 30-some years. Alan Wilder left 18 years ago and that was supposed to be the end of the band – some, to this day, believe they stopped making good music once he was gone. Gahan’s drug use and mental health have almost ended both his life and the band more than once. Yet somehow, these old electronic pros have put together an album in Delta Machine that looks backward, flirts with the future, yet sounds fresh and polished right here in 2013. Score this one another success in the Year of the British Geezers’ Return.