Monday, March 27, 2017

album review: 'spirit' by depeche mode

I've talked in politics in music a lot in this series: hell, one of the first things I ever clearly delineated were my criteria for political art to work, I've been focused on this for some time. And initially, given the aftermath of the election last year down south, I was expecting a lot more politically-themed art to erupt from the woodwork, artists who now have a clear and present threat erupting forth to make their statement.

But in watching a Dead End Hip Hop conversation with MC Uncommon Nasa - who I have covered a few times on this show - he raised a few points that got me thinking, the first being that hardship rarely precedes great art. Like it or not, when by necessity you have to be concerned where your next meal is coming or whether you can make rent and your art doesn't have the necessary focus, it can feel slapdash... and while that can work for some punks or true prodigies, that added rush to say something can also lead to ideas that aren't fully thought out or explored. And that's the other thing: everyone is going to want to rush to make some sort of statement, cash in quickly to be the standard bearers - and that means a lot of acts who aren't normally political will try to become political, and that can have disastrous results.

As such, when I had heard long-running darkwave group Depeche Mode was breaking from tradition to release a more politically-themed record... I had mixed feelings, to say the least. On the one hand, they have explored complex emotional, spiritual, sexual and even socially relevant themes before, but the complexities of modern politics are a very different animal, and I wasn't really confident they'd manage to bring together the writing to make this work. And to further qualify this, I wouldn't say I was a hardcore Depeche Mode fan - I think between '86-'93 they put out good records, which is a longer 'good' period than most critics give them credit, but outside of isolated cuts before and after a lot of it can start to run together for me. But hey, they're also an English group, probably looking to focus more on the political scene in their own country, and the longer time to deliberate probably helped, and Lord knows their writing has felt stale for years so maybe uncharted territory would be good for them, so how did Spirit come together?

Honestly... this feels like a work with good intentions and a few good ideas, but it suffers in the execution. Hell, not even that it suffers - if you're a longtime Depeche Mode fan, I daresay you're going to like this project - but that might actually be directly adjacent to the main issue, that for as much as this album wants to inspire change or a pivot in its audience to do something in its writing, it seems like nearly everything else is either subtly or overtly working to pull the group in the opposite direction - none of which makes the project bad, but it does mean it's lacking in a certain amount of impact.

So let's start with the lyrics, and as you might expect, Depeche Mode's take on this sort of politics is less about the details themselves and more inspiring people to do something, snap out of their bubble and make a change for themselves. It's not aiming to make sharper, more detailed points or direct references, although you can definitely see the broad strokes materializing on the pretty damn strong opener 'Going Backwards' on the regression of human emotions even as technology advances, or the finger leveled against the passive onlooker on 'Worst Crime'. And I definitely will give them a little credit for at least highlighting how very difficult or hopeless it can feel to snap people out of their stupor, especially on songs like 'Cover Me', where the protagonist travels to a different world only to find nothing has changed because nobody has done anything there either. But here's the thing about a song like this, or songs like 'Chained To The Rhythm' by Katy Perry - they feel increasingly myopic, reflecting a lack of concern in the immediate circle which doesn't reflect the increasingly connected reality at all. Sure, you get your fair share of disaffected nihilists who don't think anything is going to change - this is the Internet, after all - but it ignores people who are actively fighting for change and that said change can work given persistence. And no three songs highlighting this record's greater myopia than 'So Much Love, 'Poorman' and 'Fail', in the first case a song describing how our frontman has so much love to give his audience to help that can't help but feel self-serving in the delivery, the second talking about corporate exploitation and a homeless man that uses him more as symbol than person, and the latter pretty much an admission of failure, that society has grown so desaturated and lacking in emotion that, to quote the song directly, 'it's futile to even start hoping'. I know that Depeche Mode has sat on the edge of goth for some time, but by the Nine Hells, I'm not sure that nihilist mode of action is going to get people inspired by anything except reverse psychology!

But that presumes Depeche Mode can even stay on the political message - truth is that it really only occupies half the record, the rest filled with Depeche Mode mainstays in dark dancefloor hookups, tainted breakups, and love songs in the face of coming ruin. But that's the point: if you go beyond some of the broadly sketched ideas, this record feels like it could have been dropped at any point in Depeche Mode's past twenty years and it wouldn't really feel out of place in instrumentation, vocals, or even production! The skittering, cracking, fizzy beats that have plenty of texture but can feel a bit underweight overall, the synths that feel oily and wiry unless there's a need to let them swell with the smoky guitars, and all of which is anchored on Dave Gahan's voice and the desperate hope the groove can materialize to give the song looseness and momentum. When it works, like opposite the ghostly horns on 'Going Backward', the funeral march smolder of 'Worst Crime', the deep glossy swells of synth that eventually anchor 'Scum' and 'So Much Love', or even the more muscular darkwave groove that kicks behind 'You Move' with its great synthline post-chorus, it clicks for me. But when it doesn't, the music can't help but feel like sounds and tones that I've not only heard Depeche Mode use before, but also their successors bring with a lot more grit and muscle and actual bite, or in a case like 'Where's The Revolution', a groove with such clumsy transitions it really can't be excused. This is producer James Ford's first time working with Depeche Mode after working with the Arctic Monkeys and that one electric Mumford & Sons record we all forgot existed, and while I do think he understands their sound, he's really not doing anything beyond preserving tones that Depeche Mode have been using since the mid-90s! Now that's not saying from a compositional point the group doesn't try a few new things in a bluesier direction, with 'Worst Crime' working well and 'Poison Heart' trying for a Muscle Shoals sound and failing - someone needs to take a lesson from indie country - but beyond that, all of this is very familiar to any Depeche Mode fan... but in a weird sense that's part of the problem. Especially with the record's ending, there's no sense of urgency or drive, and given how the sound hasn't evolved or shifted much, it paints the group as all the more detached from the realities right now.

But as a whole... okay, let's get brutally honest, did any of Depeche Mode's fans honestly want them to make an explosive political statement? Because this... it has the feeling of the group wanting to say something but either unwilling or unaware of the edge lyrically or instrumentally to make it feel relevant or potent. If anything, I recommend you view this as just another Depeche Mode project and treat the defeatist political subtext as perfunctory - if you can get into the grooves, it satisfies enough in that territory, albeit ground that has been long-tread before. For me, I'm thinking a light 6/10 and a cautious recommendation for fans, but non-fans won't miss much otherwise. It's not a bad listen, don't get me wrong, but while Depeche Mode might long for the spirit, I miss the spark.

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