Friday, March 29, 2013

album review: 'delta machine' by depeche mode

Normally, the best part of writing my reviews is listening to the pile of previous material that the artist produced before their newest outing. For me, I like to use this time to get an idea of where the album fits within the context of the artist's career, to get an idea of what this album might mean. And particularly when it comes to acts that I've never heard of or listened to before, I find it a great opportunity to tear through some of my massive backlog.

And going into this review, I couldn't help but feel a little encouraged by the task ahead of me. I mean, the last time I tackled an artist with over a dozen albums worth of material, it was Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, of whom I have no qualms stating is one of the best acts of the past thirty years. And most synthpop acts from the 80s don't last if they don't have something to say, and Depeche Mode has been hailed as one of the greats of the genre, with critically acclaimed albums and a fervent cult following. And given their tendencies towards gothic electronica and being one of the most influential members of the darkwave movement (and given I'm a fan of The Cure and Sisters of Mercy), I was definitely looking forward to powering through the discography of Depeche Mode and taking in their rich history. I was looking forward to becoming a fan.

Twelve albums later, I emerged exhausted, exasperated, and distinctly dissatisfied. Twelve albums of bleak, dreary synthpop and electronica - and I'd be hard-pressed to call three of them good (Songs Of Faith and Devotion, Violator, and Playing The Angel). Four if I was pushing it (Music For The Masses). And even the four I considered good, I only consider them good. Nothing spectacular, nothing I couldn't live without, nothing that moved me on any emotional or intellectual level, hardly any songs that sent a chill down my spine.

What a letdown.

What makes matters worse is the fact that there are a lot of thing that frustrate me about Depeche Mode, a lot of little things that would so quickly elevate this band into more than the sum of its parts. The band has a unique, heavily-synth driven gothic sound, and when they finally got a decent synthesizer and grabbed heavier samples, they had a real talent for writing intricately composed melodies. Lead vocals from David Gahan and Martin Gore were pretty damn solid as well, and the two have a gift for harmony I wish they utilized more. And when the band really tried, they could write thought-provoking and wryly insightful songs.

Unfortunately, there's a thin line between 'really trying' and 'trying way too hard', and here's where my first big problem with Depeche Mode comes up. Now I want you all to remember that nerdy kid in high school who suddenly decides he wants to be 'dark', so he starts wearing black leather and only listens to gothic music (be it metal or otherwise) and starts talking about sex with a forced casualness that just makes everyone feel uncomfortable (for those of you about to get annoyed or offended, keep in mind for a brief period that I was that kid). The funny thing is about half the time, that kid does manage to make it work and it surprises everyone - and the other half of the time, it's awkward and embarrassing for everyone involved. 

Here's the interesting thing - Depeche Mode occupies the peculiar position that they both play the music that nerdy kid would listen to, and they occupy the exact same image themselves. There are points where they nail the balance between goth and synth-nerd, and it works and all of the elements come together and that dark, brooding gothic aesthetic pays massive dividends through great, potent songs - and there are other points that just inspire cringing sympathy. 

But keep in mind this is all happens when Depeche Mode is trying. There are also the stretches - the long, long stretches - where they really aren't trying to the same extent, which leads to my biggest problem with them: Depeche Mode can get really fucking boring really fast. Outside of isolated moments of brilliance, long tracts of their first four or five albums blur together in my mind because there's nothing that really stands out amongst the bleakness. And while I get the gothic dreariness is part of their style, you'd think they'd at least have some strong hooks or memorable lyrics or compelling themes to make them stand out - but more often than not, you get nothing but a bland slurry of stylistically unique but individually uninspiring synthpop songs. By the way, for those of you who are curious why I haven't begun my deeper exploration of Nine Inch Nails, it's pretty much due to a fear of this very phenomenon.

So does Delta Machine, Depeche Mode's thirteenth album, stand out among the flurry of bland boredom, or have they made something truly intriguing?

Well, much to my satisfaction, Delta Machine doesn't suck. In fact, I'd argue it's pretty damn solid, all things considered. And while I wouldn't quite call the album iconic or excellent, it's probably their best album since Playing The Angel, and that's most definitely a relief. But there are a number of elements about it that really do bother me, and I'll try to articulate why throughout the rest of this review.

For starters, Delta Machine distinctly feels like a modern alt-rock/electronic album, instead of the strange, often grating binaural soundscapes that dominated their last album Sounds of the Universe. And while I definitely appreciate the choice - the modern alt-rock/electronica landscape is probably at the best it's been in years - I can't say that I'm not a little disappointed. After all, Depeche Mode used to be the trendsetter when it came to this genre, they used to be the ones pushing the boundaries with innovative sounds and musical stylings. But now it feels like I'm listening to a collection of songs that wouldn't sound out of place on a new Imagine Dragons album (incidentally, if you haven't picked up Imagine Dragons' debut album from last year Night Visions, FIX THAT), and that's a bit sad. 

Now don't get me wrong, Depeche Mode manages to bring the necessary chops to the table to perform in this genre - after all, they were practically one of the progenitors of blending gothic electronica with synth-driven rock. And really, it's no surprise at all that Depeche Mode sounds almost comfortable in this musical setting - and really, why wouldn't they? If we're going by the standards of history, they were the ones who drove this sort of music back in the late 80s and early 90s, and thus they sound comfortable in the driver's seat of this genre again, leading to one of the smoothest, most confident performances I've seen from Depeche Mode in a long time. I guess in the world where the nerds rule most of the world, it isn't much of a surprise that the synth nerds that tried way too hard in the 80s sound confident and potent now, with maturity and experience on their side. And while some of the experimentation is still there, it's minimalist and avoids actively trying to destroy my eardrums (for those of you who don't know, I really didn't like Sounds of the Universe). 

This leads to the vocal performances, and I'll come out and say it - Dave Gahan sounds better than ever on this album. One of my big issues with his delivery throughout the 80s was that it was, much like his music, a bit too detached, a bit too blaring, a bit too sharp. There was no grit in his voice, and his sonorous delivery could get more than a little insufferable at points. But here he sounds more driven and organic than he ever has, less detached and more engaged in his songs, and unsurprisingly, I was more engaged as well. It helps that unlike on previous albums, the vocals are near the top of the mix, thus that much more audible and prominent, which tends towards a plus in my book. If anything, some of the weakness comes in Martin Gore's vocal delivery, which is a bit too reserved and blandly performed to stand out against Dave Gahan. Gore's has always been the more melodic of the duo, but the songs where he takes the lead here tend towards blandness, much to my frustration.

And now we must come to the songwriting, the consistently major sticking point against me really liking Depeche Mode. And while I know that most songwriters won't ever be on the standards of Bob Dylan or Nick Cave or Eminem or Jim Steinman, Depeche Mode has the unfortunate problem of generally unimpressive songwriting across the board, more often than not coasting by on the taboo-breaking subject matter rather than lyrical quality. They're a band that has always been more about their image than their words or message - hell, even their fans can admit that - and for the most part, that isn't much of a problem if the songs are competently structured and have good hooks. And the big problem with a large swathe of Depeche Mode's material is that both intriguing lyrical subject matter and solid hooks are few and far between.

Fortunately, we get some of both on this album, with Depeche Mode exploring two subjects they've explored dozens of time over their career: religion and sexual relationships, the go-to subject matter for the majority of any gothic music. It's well-trod ground, particularly for Depeche Mode, but there are some moments where Dave Gahan's new assertiveness adds a new edge to tracks. Interestingly, more than a few tracks delve into the failure of relationships on this album, with at least five diving into various reasons for this failure. There's nothing all that new here that we haven't seen here before, but Dave Gahan does bring some intensity to the tracks that's welcome and makes them feel newer. The stand-outs 'Broken' and 'Soothe My Soul' both show a harsher side, that's almost Nick Cave-esque in its blending of religious overtones with the rest of the song, and I mean that as a high compliment.

But the frustrating thing is that all of these topics are well-trodden ground by Depeche Mode. They're circling themes that we've seen before a number of times, and with no good unifying theme to draw all the disparate elements together and no narrative through-line (well, okay, that's unfair, you could say the 'story' of the album is of the various emotions/stages of a difficult relationship, but Depeche Mode really doesn't say anything that hasn't been said time after time), the entire album feels a bit shallow and lacking in true dramatic heft.

But really, that's been a problem with all of Depeche Mode's material. Depeche Mode started off as a synthpop act and even with changes in sound and style, that's ultimately what they still are today. And they have continuously updated their sound so they don't sound like a throwback or that they're trying too hard to fit in with modern trends. If anything, their music has been responsible for starting and influencing the majority of modern trends in synthpop today. And while it strikes me as a bit annoying that after thirty years Depeche Mode really haven't evolved much in the songwriting department, I can't say that they're making bad music. 

And to be completely fair, I was probably going in with unrealistic expectations. Sure, Depeche Mode are definers of their genre, but with rare exception, the gothic synthpop genre has always been more obsessed with style than substance, a definition that pretty much fits Depeche Mode to a tee. They aren't as deep or insightful as The Cure or as good lyricists as Nick Cave, but then again, they aren't trying to be. The band is - and has always been - more content to innovate with their sound more than their subject matter, and I guess I can accept that.

So with all of those qualifiers, I can recommend Delta Machine by Depeche Mode. Fans will see it as a return to form after the frustrating Sounds Of The Universe, and while it's not quite at the level of their greats, it's still a solid and enjoyable work. Those who aren't fans and are just curious about the band will probably like it too, because it's definitely their most accessible album in recent years. Give it a spin, and who knows, you might find meaning I couldn't see.

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