28 April 2009

Depeche Mode: "Sounds of the Universe"

Went out to my yearly excursion to the Penn Relays in Philly (and came back to resolve Internet connectivity issues), I had the chance to listen to Depeche Mode’s latest album repeatedly. I realized something about myself as I listened to this album: I hold the veterans to a much higher standard than younger musicians. I guess my reasons are obvious: they have the experience to deliver solid music; they have the years of experience to know what works and what does not, and the hindsight to make the right kinds of decisions. I had the highest expectations for “Sounds of the Universe” from the moment I heard about its future release. And upon first listening, my reaction was, “This would be a great album, if it were not Depeche Mode.” After more listens, I hold fast to my opinion.

“Sounds of the Universe” (20 April 2009 in Europe, 21 April 2009 North America) falls short of what Depeche Mode is capable of. First off, I am not one of these people who are praying for the magical return of Alan Wilder (who brought with him an extensive ability to arrange music and was the only band member who was a talented pianist); I think that the three remaining members of Depeche Mode have the ability and ingenuity to compose and record amazing music, as the single “Wrong” proves (not to mention “Home,” “I Feel Loved,” and “Precious” – all written post-Alan Wilder). Secondly, I am not one of those who want my favorite bands to reproduce my favorite albums. Depeche Mode will never record another “Black Celebration” (17 March 1986) “Music for the Masses” (18 September 1987), “Violator” (19 March 1990) or “Songs of Faith and Devotion” (22 March 1993). I recognize that part of what I feel about those albums was where I was in life at that moment, where the band was on their journey creatively, and what was happening musically at the time. No, I had no preconceptions of what “Sounds of the Universe” was supposed to sound like – but I did expect the high caliber music I have come to expect of Depeche Mode.

My first critique of the album is the sound quality. There is no doubt that this album was not recorded in a multimillion dollar studio that Depeche Mode could afford; this album has all the markings of home studio. Not that that is a bad thing, but when your goal was to have the sounds of the universe, to make this album the biggest and best album ever, then the quality better be there. When veterans get too comfortable (and too loaded) that they decide to record at home, under long schedules, or in any which way or shape they want, what they destroy is the chemistry, the pressures, and the urgency that forced them to be creative in their earlier days. What they loose is the sense of spontaneity, the rawness, and that edgy music that has made them survive and remain relevant ten, twenty, nearly thirty years into their career. A band’s name is not enough to remain relevant and important to the music scene, artists must continue to strive to be creative and strong songwriters. My second critique is Depcehe Mode’s return to a solid 80s sound with so many of their songs. For instance, “Fragile Tension” has a synthpop feel that Depeche Mode has not sported out in years. I think it is amazing that their sound has been so influential that a dozen bands a month are releasing albums with the classic Depeche Mode sound, but when they themselves go back to reproduce their own classic sound it is a bit disingenuous. It is almost as if they are trying to ride the coattails of current artists (Metric, Royksopp, Cut Copy) who have modernized the DM sound, instead of pushing the envelope sonically, which is something they have done better than any other modern artist.

What does this album have going for it? David Gahan. Gahan is perhaps one of the best vocalists in music (and arguably one of the five best front persons in live performance in the industry at the moment). Gahan may not have the range of other male vocalists, like Morrissey or Matt Bellamy, but what he has is conviction and artistry. His ability to sing and make you believe what he is saying (when traditionally the lyrics are written by Martin Gore) is awe-inspiring. He can vary the texture of his voice for different sonic effects, switching back and forth with ease. From rock style to gospel-esque vocals, from sexy and sultry to angry, Gahan can deliver vocally as very few vocalists can. This is much more than just carrying a tune; it is the dramatic interpretation of words, the manipulation of emotions, and the ability to sell fiction as truth. And if that does not impress you on the album, imagine live when he must jump decades from “Just Can’t Get Enough” or “Photographic” to “Precious” or “Wrong.” He never skips a beat.

Gahan has released two solo albums (“Paper Monsters” (2003) and “Hourglass” (2007)), writing his first track for Depeche Mode on their last album. On this album, he brings three strong originals: the bare “Hole to Feed,” the insidious “Come Back,” and the anxious “Miles Away/The Truth Is.” But Gore still has it in him to compose some of the most interesting lyrics and music. Take the lead single, “Wrong,” as the perfect example: “There’s something wrong with me chemically, something wrong with me inherently, the wrong mix in the wrong genes, I reach the wrong ends by the wrong means.” Gore is a poet at heart: “On another world, by another star, at another place and time, in another state of consciousness, in another state of mind, everything was almost perfect, fell into place, the jury reached another verdict, before the judge dismissed the case” (“Perfect”). In “Peace,” Gore shows the ability once again to manage multiple layers of sounds, intricate noises, while in the closing track, “Corrupt,” hits the perfect balance between the sarcasm in the lyrics (“You’ll be calling out my name when you need someone to blame”) and the arrangements and layers of sounds.

Though I think there will be many who will hail this as the greatest of Depeche Mode albums, especially younger listeners who did not live through the twenty-four year journey I have been with them, I feel that “Sounds of the Universe” did not meet the expectations of a “DM” album, though, as I said before, it would be a great album released by anyone else. Do I think you should skip it and move on? Absolutely not! Depeche Mode can still put out music that makes most artists look amateurish and hackneyed. Do I think that they will make up for the lack-luster live? Absolutely. Do I think it may be time for them, like the Cure, to recreate the tension in a real studio? Absolutely.

Track Listing:
1. In Chains
2. Hole to Feed
3. Wrong
4. Fragile Tension
5. Little Soul
6. In Sympathy
7. Peace
8. Come Back
9. Spacewalker
10. Perfect
11. Miles Away/The Truth Is
12. Jezebel
13. Corrupt

Keep up with the band at their homepage, MySpace, and Facebook.