October 27, 2005

Depeche Mode: Playing the Angel

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Before I even listened to Depeche Mode’s newest album Playing The Angel, I encountered a particular problem. It’s clear that Depeche Mode excels at their brand of moody synth-pop, but what if they do it over and over for 25 years? Is that a cause for celebration or for disappointment? Should we expect reinvention – at the risk of possible failure – or a safe, formulaic “return to form?” With Playing the Angel, it’s immediately apparent that Depeche Mode has chosen the latter.

Playing the Angel is unabashedly plagiarized from Depeche Mode’s wildly successful 25-year-long career. But who am I to complain? This album works and Depeche Mode offers no apologies for being derivative of, well, themselves. And why should they? The album is attractive for both new and old Depeche Mode fans by fusing the dance-pop sensibilities of the early ’80s, the darkness and pervading melancholy of the late ’80s, and the flawless production quality of their late ’90s work. Playing the Angel may not hold the honor of being “essential” Depeche Mode, but this album is nothing to be ashamed of and you can guarantee the die-hard fans will go apeshit over this. With pop artists (and their target audiences) getting younger and younger (Jo-Jo is 13. I mean, seriously?), it’s amazing that Depeche Mode doesn’t even flinch. This is a band that is acutely and quietly aware of their greatness and nowhere could this be more evident than on Playing the Angel.

The first track, “A Pain That I’m Used To” serves the same function as album opener “Barrel of a Gun” from 1997’s Ultra. It positively reeks of vintage Depeche Mode, but the overall mood is that of dejà vu – it’s all been done before. However, this doesn’t detract from the fact that it is still one of the most brilliant songs Depeche Mode has ever created. Oscillating, squealing guitars open the track, oozing like industrial sludge until a pulsing synthesizer is added, drawing the rhythm out into a slow and steady burn. Gahan’s inimitable vocals are smooth and focused yet the track also finds him at his most ominous.

Although the plagiarism is glaringly evident throughout the course of the album, it’s hardly offensive and, after 2001’s disappointing Exciter (talk about an ironic title for an album), is even a huge relief. “Precious” is practically a carbon copy of their 1990 smash success “Enjoy The Silence,” but that never takes away from the fact that “Precious” is a fucking great song. The driving beat and delicate piano melody is clearly plucked from their earlier, more successful album – but who cares? Gahan’s voice is the best thing here and is effortlessly lifted out of his usual brooding, depressive territory and emerges impossibly pure, clear and at times, even tender. So why tinker with a recipe that has proved so successful in the past? Dare I say it, “Precious” may even be better than “Enjoy The Silence” – the production is cleaner and Gahan’s voice has never sounded this good, this angelic.

Exemplifying the best of Depeche Mode, there are plenty of dance-worthy tracks on Playing The Angel. “Lilian” rejuvenates the end of the album with a swirl of tremulous, fuzzed-out vocals and an easygoing synth vibe. “John The Revelator” is a powerful, stomping second track and reverts to the familiar Depeche Mode territory of religious iconography in the tradition of new-wave classics “Personal Jesus” and “Judas.”

“Suffer Well,” a more mellow version of “A Question of Time,” is one of Dave Gahan’s more successful contributions as a songwriter (traditionally, Martin Gore occupies the niche as the sole songwriter) on Playing the Angel. Tackling Depeche Mode’s favorite themes of sadism, anxiety and alienation, Gahan’s songwriting skills have significantly improved since his mostly disappointing solo debut Paper Monsters.

Unfortunately, where one Gahan track succeeds, another falls flat on its six-minute-long face. The lackluster production, Gahan’s moping vocals and tepid instrumentals of “I Want It All” drag in unbearable monotony. Despite Gahan’s songwriting improvements, the track noticeably substitutes Martin Gore’s nuanced lyrics with cringe-worthy cliches (“Sometimes I cry / Sometimes I die / It’s true”). A band that’s been around for longer than I’ve been alive should know better by now.

Veering on the uneven, Playing The Angel is not a perfect album. The tracks that are good are really incredible and show Depeche Mode at the height of their powers. But the album is far too careless in its casual inclusion of mediocre tracks (like the pseudo-ambient filler of “Introspectre” and the tedious “Nothing Impossible”) to compete with the likes of Violator or Songs of Faith and Devotion.

After 25 years together, the men of Depeche Mode know what works and are understandably reluctant to tamper with a foolproof formula. Although it’s all very familiar territory (could dark, brooding electro pop, macabre lyrics, detached vocals, gothic romanticism and industrial wastelands conjure any other band as strongly?), the songs retain a freshness that lends them an important contemporary relevance. In the wake of a recent obsession with ’80s new wave (The Bravery, The Killers), Depeche Mode, the indestructible granddaddies of synth pop, have quietly reentered the scene, ready to remind us all why Brandon Flowers is a poor imitator of the Real Deal. And boy, are we glad they did.

Archived article by Natasha Pickowicz
Sun Staff Writer