There are some musical styles that are inextricably tied to their place and era — thriving off the prevailing ethos of the time, they often do not translate well to modern pop sensibilities. Depeche Mode, the dinosaurs of late-’80s doom-and-gloom techno, jerkily twitch their way back onto the airwaves with “Playing the Angel,” their eleventh studio album and first in four years. Unfortunately, their distinctly synthesized sound, sexual-sacrosanct lyrics and eerie outer-space motifs are, to someone who came of age after the fall of the Soviet Union, nothing more than an odd ’80s relic. Bereft of the relevance, freshness, and hip underground sexiness of their bygone hits, Depeche Mode’s latest will more likely end up on the discount shelf than burning up the dance floor.
Of course, to their longtime fans, the boys from Britain who brought the world “Reach out/ Touch faith” can do no wrong, and on “Playing the Angel,” Depeche Mode keep doing what they’ve been doing for the past twenty-five years, no reality-check required. Though the songs bear the slick touch of skilled, seasoned professionals, the sound is a strange case of stunted growth — undeniably aged, yet still clinging to a vestige of youth. The liner photos of a trio of forty-somethings still sporting tight black jeans, mesh tee shirts and chain necklaces says it better than anything, really.
Though the men of Depeche Mode certainly know their way around a recording both, “Playing the Angel” lacks both the aesthetic beauty of Enigma and the innovative gut-punch of the Chemical Brothers. At this stage in their career, even the Thievery Corporation could beat them for pure dance club fodder. The first track, “A Pain That I’m Used To,” opens with a cringe-inducing cacophony of harsh, grating electrical buzzes. This auditory monstrosity eventually gives way to a weak, lifeless bass line that could only titillate the most stoned of ecstasy-chic rave hounds. The song is little more than a soundtrack for staring vacantly at gyrating glow sticks — of course, with asinine lyrics like “There’s a hole in your soul/ Like an animal/ With no conscience/ Repentance unknown,” tuning-out might just be the best option for this clunker.
Thankfully, Depeche Mode haven’t completely forgotten their modus operandi (namely, to get those hips shaking), and later tracks like “John the Revelator” and “Precious” prove they haven’t lost the darkly magic touch that made them famous. “John” sports a messy yet hypnotic beat, chock-full of dynamic drums and booming bass. The song’s religious imagery successfully recalls their early hit “Personal Jesus” from 1990’s “Violator,” without delving too far into rehash territory. Lead singer David Gahan’s rich, resounding voice works much better here than on the opener; it’s got the weight and heft to sound serious, but never goes too far off the deep end. “Seven lies multiplied by seven/ Multiplied by seven again/ Seven angels with seven trumpets/ Send them home on the morning train,” he sings ominously, deftly capturing the enigmatic spiritual mystique without sounding too hokey.
The group would be better served to stick to their pseudo-apocalyptic shtick, because they fail miserably on the more anthropocentric material. The tense yet crisp opening guitar licks of “Suffer Well” echo against the haunting up-tempo beat — it’s a shame that Gahan has to come and kill the mood with poetically-challenged lyrics like “Where were you when I fell from grace/ A frozen heart on an empty space.” On “Nothing’s Impossible,” there’s barely even a beat to ruin, unless you count the woefully thin bass line and morphine-slow drums. Here, producer Ben Hillier filters Gahan’s voice through some intense electronic distortion effects — lameness ensues.
There are honestly too many misses on “Playing the Angel” to pinpoint any single lowlight. Maybe “Damaged People” should take the honors — what starts out as a moodily restless Philip Glass impression quickly turns into a preposterously operatic chant-along: “When I feel the warmth of your very soul/ I forget I’m cold/ And crying.” With lyrics like that, who needs the Bible?
Depeche Mode need to take a crash course in twenty-first century aesthetics, because they’re trapped in a time bubble of the worst variety. How about this for their next album: pop a few Prozac, lay off the reverb, and hire Gwen Stefani for some overdubs. It’ll be a surefire hit.