Depeche Mode’s Playing the Angel

Somewhere along the line, I rediscovered Depeche Mode. I pretty much had everything available up through Depeche Mode 101 (which I didn’t think much of — it’s one of the worst live albums I’ve heard), but on a whim I picked up a copy of Songs of Faith and Devotion and finally got around to listening to it. The die was cast. I then got a copy of Playing the Angel.

The thing about Depeche Mode is that they continually reinvent themselves. I once said of Violator “That’s the one where they really became Depeche Mode.” Then I had to keep moving the timeline back. They really started as Depeche Mode, and have always been Depeche Mode, but each album showed a new facet, moved into new territory.

On first listening, the unfortunate introduction to the first track, “A Pain That I’m Used To,” turned me off. They do that sort of thing every once in a while, a passage that just hovers on the edge of white noise, and this is possibly their most extreme example. When I finally sat down and actually listened, however, I was blown away.

One thing about the band is that they’ve always been musically adventurous. Not in the way of some groups, who will very daringly quote a passage from Tchaikovsky to show their bona fides as musicians, but in a fundamentally creative way. They are always doing something on the edge and as often as not, it’s simply breathtaking. And at the same time they will take modes that you would swear were worn out by 1963 and make them live again. This album’s no exception. One of my prime candidates on both scores is “Precious.” It sounds so much like a standard pop ballad with a little bit of momentum to it, and then you start to hear the richness of the textures and the naked aggression underlying the lyrics, which themselves are remarkable — no syrup allowed, folks. This is tough music.

Depeche Mode has always been an “electro” band, even when going back to “standard” instruments, and as far as the accompaniment is concerned, this one’s right in the tradition, but this collection is really about the vocals. Both David Gahan and Martin Gore have distinctive voices, but this is the first album I’ve heard on which the vocals are the real focus, and in a lot of ways the adventurousness of their earlier work makes the transition from playing with instruments to playing with their voices. They trade off on the lead, sort of — Gahan sings all tracks except “Macro” and “Damaged People” which are done by Gore. This is stylistic tour of late-twentieth century pop music, from “Suffer Well,” which could have been done by any crooner from the ’50s or ’60s, to the pop/rock/gospel sound of “John the Revelator” with its driving, syncopated momentum (and vocally, which also harks back to earlier DM), to the world-weary, sinuous, almost moaning vocals in “Lilian” and “The Darkest Star,” straight out of the goth/punk tradition where they first made their mark. (One thing about Depeche Mode’s vocals: I’ve said in other contexts that part of their appeal for me is the voices have always been men’s voices, not boys’ voices, no matter what range or approach the singers were taking. It’s a matter of weight and maturity, and both Gahan and Gore have it and always did have it.)

This is Depeche Mode becoming Depeche Mode — again. If you can make it past the first thirty seconds, you’re in for a real, meaty treat.

(Reprise, 2005)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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