As going around the Interweb of late, Colombian artist Dicken Schrader has formed a Depeche Mode cover band with his children Milah and Korben, where they sing about deviant romance, the world’s incurable propensity for greed, and the usual DM smorgasbord of heartbreak, depression, and regret. The kids are alright.
Following in the footsteps of Depeche Mode and Ian Curtises both real and fake, master assassin George Clooney looks weary and conflicted in a sumptuously-shot Europe in the new trailer for Anton Corbijn’s The American, also with Bruce Altman, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli and Violante Placido. I’m in.
To get the bad news out of the way first, the obscenely catchy first single, “Wrong,” is far and away the high point of the album. I warmed slow to this ditty at first, but, even tho’ it unfolds at a more relaxed tempo than I might prefer, it’s undeniably infectious. With Dave Gahan in full street-preacher mode and Marty Gore carrying the song home in the final stanzas, “Wrong,” like “Precious” on Playing the Angel and “It’s No Good” on Ultra, can stand proudly with the best singles of the halcyon days, and that’s no small thing.
That being said, there are a lot of filler tracks on Sounds of the Universe, and it’s a hard album to recommend to anyone but tried-and-true DM fans (who don’t need the recommendation anyway — they all bought multiple versions of it, likely along with tour tix and a DM t-shirt, last Tuesday.) Along with producer Ben Hillier, who’s good with the bells and whistles, I guess, but never really manages to make the DM sound “fill the room” as it did in the Daniel Miller/Flood days — SotU is often far too tinny), the band seem to be exploring ways to resurrect and update their old synth-sound without over-forcing the issue. The results are mixed.
(Digression: For a good example of “over-forcing the issue,” imho, listen to U2’s recent No Line on the Horizon, which to me sounds like a bunch of quintessential-to-the-point-of-feeling-contrived U2 hooks interpersed amid long sessions of random studio noodling. No songs really coalesce therein — it sounds like someone fiddling with the dial on a radio that only plays U2. And No Line is all glommed together with that uber-Lanois production sound. I like Daniel Lanois, he’s done some landmark albums — Achtung Baby, Us, Time Out of Mind — and I’ve even bought some of his solo stuff over the years. (“Sleeping in the Devil’s Bed” is a mixtape standby.) But it all does kinda sound the same after awhile.)
The question arises on SotU: What is DM’s old sound? “Fragile Tension,” like “Lillian” on the previous album, goes whole-hog with the early-synth pulse, recalling the very early days of the band — Speak & Spell, A Broken Frame, etc. Alas, it doesn’t really work. (As a vocalist, Gahan does some things really well — melisma isn’t one of them.) “Spacewalker” is another atmospheric instrumental a la “The Great Outdoors!”, “St. Jarna,” or “Agent Orange,” the type of moody keyboard piece that conjures up visions of Eurothrillers like George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (or, more on topic, Anton Corbijn’s Strange.) “In Chains,” on the other hand, is more in the later-period gospel-grunge mode of “Clean,” “Higher Love,” or “Condemnation” (with a touch of the bang-the-metal interlude of “Stripped”) — it’s perfectly acceptable, I guess, but it doesn’t really bring much new to the table.
Those tracks aside, main songwriter Martin Gore spends too many songs in the treacly New Age, post-rehab platitude rut that characterizes at least a few tracks on every album since 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion. (See “Freestate” or “I am You,” for example.) The middle of SotU in particular — “Fragile Tension,” “Little Soul,” “In Sympathy,” the Beatlesque by way of Tears for Fears second single “Peace” — all run together in this fashion.
Speaking of sounding-like-TfF, my second favorite song on the album is probably “Perfect,” which argues amusingly that even when you consider the Anathem-like philosophical ramifications of string theory, the DM multiverse is still on the bleak side. (“In a parallel universe that’s happening right now, things between us must be worse, but it’s hard to see just how.“) That being said, with its mid-80’s key changes and all, “Perfect” sounds eerily like a long-lost Howard Jones number.
In its favor, SotU is the first DM album where the Gahan-penned contributions intermix with the Gore fare enough to be virtually indistinguishable. Indeed, while two of the Gahan songs — “Come Back” and “Miles Away/The Truth Is” — are a little over-produced (The stripped down version of “Come Back” which leaked a few months ago attests to this), it’s the lead singer, rather than Gore, who seems to have a better handle on “that classic DM sound.” In effect, while Gore sometimes seems a bit lost in his gospel influences lately, Gahan — as one review I read somewhere well put it — has improved to the point of becoming a pretty good Depeche Mode tribute band.
Now even I, a DM fan of long standing, am prone to bag on how much of the classic Mode oeuvre revolves around sex, sin, obsession, religion, and redemption. (My love is a black car, and you crucify me on the steering wheel because I asked you to, etc. etc.) Still, the best moments on Sounds of the Universe are when they stop reaching for some new synthetic harmony and, as with “Wrong”, just let that old freak flag fly. Put another way, it’s when DM stops trying to fuse their early synth and later gospel periods into a new, cohesive sound and goes right for the crunchy, tongue-in-cheek “Master and Servant”-to-“Personal Jesus”-style crowd-stompers that the album really works best.
Gahan’s “Hole to Feed,” for example, is a jaunty ditty about what one might call the Benjamin Braddock problem — once you’ve finally managed to land the one true love you’ve been writhing and pining for…well, then what? (“We are here, we can love, we share something. I’m sure that you mean the world to me. When you get what you need, there’s no way of knowing what you have is another hole to feed.“) As for “hole to feed,” I’ll let you figure that one out. But, like any number of vaguely raunchy DM songs (or like Gary Oldman endlessly stuffing the hole in his backyard with cash in Romeo is Bleeding), the metaphor here isn’t very oblique.
Similarly, with its creepy-filthy blips and trademark Gahan croon, “Corrupt,” the album closer, is another electroblues number that’s right in DM’s usual wheelhouse (“I could corrupt you, it would be easy. Watching you suffer, Girl, it would please me.“) And it suggests the sexy, mordant fun the band could be having if they stop trying to grope toward some new respectable Zen plateau and just unabashedly do what they do best.
Along those lines, I’d argue that some of the best songs of the SotU sessions were inexplicably left off the album (but are included in the deluxe version, which also offers 14 very worthwhile demos of earlier songs such as “Walking in My Shoes” and “Little 15”. Think DM standards done with Magnetic Fields simplicity.) That may be because they just feel looser and less forced than many of the album cuts. A sinister electronic sibling to Kristin Hersh’s indie rock standard “Your Ghost,” DM’s “Ghost” is driven by the most infectious and mesmerizing synth backbeat of the new tracks. (“I’m the ghost in your house, calling your name. My memory lingers, you’ll never be the same. I’m the hole in your heart, I’m the stain in your bed, the phantom in your fingers, the voices in your head.“)
“The Sun and the Moon and the Star” is the type of throwback torch song that Martin Gore probably writes over breakfast every morning, but it’s still more resonant than “Jezebel,” the one that’s officially on the album. (And, tbh, neither will replace classics like “Somebody” or “The Things You Said” in the hearts of Gore aficionados.) And “Oh Well,” the first song co-written by Gore and Gahan, succeeds because it’s nothing more or less than what it aspires to be — a propulsive club cut designed just to get ’em dancing. I’ll let that song sum up my general impression of SotU, which is a mostly harmless outing, and works best when it doesn’t try so hard: “It’s nothing to feel ashamed about, nothing I can complain about. Oh well.“
(For optimal results, read the post title in Starbuck v. Hammer screech-mode.) With the new album right around the corner, Depeche Mode release the video for their new single, “Wrong.” Hmm. Definitely not as catchy or as DM-definitive as “Precious” off the last album, but I could see this growing on me. That minimalist electroclash jeep-rock beat reminds me of the “In Your Room” remixes back in the day, and there’s something about that chanted tinny-industrial refrain — Wrong! — that wouldn’t seem out of place on Music for the Masses or Some Great Reward. In any case, it’s good to hear the band isn’t flinching from the synths anymore.
“I feel like [the record] is [about] looking outside and a yearning for somehow coming together. The world is changing. Watching Obama getting elected was great. We watched it on TV in Santa Barbara and I get goosebumps thinking about that still. It’s going to take a long time, but I think some of that same feeling, that sentiment [of hope] is in the work.” Well, it’s not too optimistic, I hope. Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan talks with the LA Times about the new album, due out in April.
For fans of the old-school sound like yours truly, there’s reason for hope in any case: “‘Martin’s got this new fetish which is basically buying gear on EBay,’ Gahan said. ‘He must have bought up half of the analog equipment around the world. We’ve got all these old drum machines from the 1970s, and even some of the stuff that we used in the ’80s as well, like old Moogs and Arps.’ As an example, Gahan noted that one of the new album’s stars is a piece of gear dubbed ‘The Colonel’ – a vintage 1970s-era Steiner Parker synthesizer. It’s an instrument, said Gahan, ‘that makes crazy noises. We found it really inspiring and used it in a lot of things [on the new record].’“
Apparently the band has finished 18 tracks, 13 of which will appear on the album (and ten of which, happily, are penned by M.L. Gore. I’m not sold on Gahan as a songwriter just yet.) “[T]he band will release a special EP or online-only add-on with the extra material next year.” In the meantime, Dave’s singing back-up for frYars’ “Visitors” (a slightly more New Romantic version of (blatant Joy Division imitators) She Wants Revenge, it seems), and Marty will soon be braving the novelty-music-paparazzi to croon “Master and Servant” once more with lounge act Nouvelle Vague.
He’s a smooth operator, it’s time we cut him down to size. The indignities of dial-up being what they are, I have yet to see the whole thing. Still, this Monty Python-ish and Dubya’ed up remix video for Depeche Mode’s version of “John the Revelator” seems worth a look-see, DM fan or no. Update: Thanks to a brief and random wireless connection, I watched it all. (Poor Tony Blair.) Ok, the Revelations bit at the end is a bit shrill, and Afghanistan is not Iraq, but I did like the crusader outfit and particularly the 7x7x7 cube of lies.
Capitalizing on the computer world they live in (and life in general), Depeche Mode recut their latest single, “Suffer Well,” in Simslish for The Sims 2: Open For Business.