Sounds Of The Universe
, April 22nd, 2009 07:48
There's a thin line between climax and anticlimax, between realisation and tantalisation. Depeche Mode have teased and tortured us with 'Wrong', the magnificent first release from their twelfth studio album Sounds of the Universe. It's an uncompromising track boasting a blackly humorous lyric that, had it been written by Neil Tennant, might have been lauded as a work of ironic pop genius. Depeche Mode, however, have to do much more to arouse critical appreciation from a public that these days largely shuns their uniquely provocative appeal. Will they succeed this time in stimulating the release of a surge of pent-up admiration?
The truth is that it's a fitful album and at times strangely subdued. Brilliance is there, though it might not be quick to reveal itself. Ben Hillier has been invited back to produce after striking a rapport with the band during his work on 2005 album Playing the Angel. More than any producer since Daniel Miller formulated the classic multi-layered, sample-drenched Mode style of the 80s, he's forged a framework for Martin Gore's rigidly-structured songs to operate within. His success is not unqualified, however. Verses too often bring the promise of excitement that choruses subsequently fail to deliver, almost as if the band are reigning in their ardor. The 'mature' vein of their other post-millennial albums continues largely unabated - a grimy, swampy, mid-paced tempo predominates - and there's little genuine exuberance, a quality that seemed to grind to a halt during their post-Songs of Faith And Devotion meltdown.
There's also the usual quota of excruciating lyrical clichés, often courtesy of Gore's obsessive desire to rhyme every couplet. Mostly these elicit an inward grimace, but the sudden arrival of "I am walking love incarnate / Look at the frequencies at which I vibrate" provides particular amusement. Also, the stock spiritual themes that run through his lyrics are undermined by an ambiguous mystical streak this time around, which is vaguely expressed whenever it crops up and doesn't sit well with accounts of firmly human tribulations.
Opener 'In Chains', despite boasting a superb Radiophonic-evoking precursive fanfare that sounds like a Dalek control centre being coaxed to the point of orgasm, is the kind of song that the band habitually choose to close their albums, on a slightly lacklustre, pointlessly wistful note. It would, in fact, have been better swapped with actual closing track 'Corrupt', which shows Martin Gore in his lyrical element, concocting some deliciously perverse lines over a very Modesque shuffle beat.
In between, the quality varies. 'Fragile Tension' is perhaps the most insubstantial track the band have ever produced: even Dave Gahan's desperate over-emoting cannot rescue it. Hillier constructs a marvellously raucous tribal backbeat for 'Hole to Feed', but it's not developed to its potential and Gahan seems content to growl rather half-heartedly over the skeleton of a much better song. The most bizarre offering is 'Peace', which performs sexual gymnastics in search of a decent hook but can't live up to the bubbling morass of analogue electronic sounds underpinning it. 'Miles Away' also clatters along in earnest, but leaves you wondering why Gahan decided to visit his Elvis impersonation upon us to the repetitive peal of a snarling Alsatian humping a rusty lawnmower. The best songs on Sounds of the Universe tend to be the ones that don't try too hard to be noticed. 'Perfect' and 'In Sympathy' catch the listener unawares. Something clicks part way through, leading to the revelation that effortlessly catchy, simply constructed melodies of the kind that the band used to knock out with casual abandon have almost passed by unnoticed. Both tracks are very uncluttered - one might almost say lightweight, but this works to their advantage.
'Jezebel' is a classic torch ballad, featuring Gore's only lead vocal on the album, and a skilfully crooned number that concludes with the guitar riff to the Stones' 'Satisfaction', sounding like it was played on a Stylophone. Then there's 'Come Back', which solves the conundrum of the underwhelming chorus by not really having one, relying instead on a legion of apparently steam-powered vintage synthesizers to deliver a continuous salvo of disorientating noise-bursts. But the choice selection is 'Little Soul', a slinky, sinister track sung by Gahan and Gore in unison, as if to emphasise that their past disagreements are behind them. However, it instead conjours up the disturbing image of them both exacting an indelicate form of emotional torture on a hapless and helpless victim. The image is reinforced by the intermittent sound of what could easily be a piece of heavy pipe being drawn across a large radiator.
"On another world, by another star, at another place and time," sings Dave Gahan on 'Perfect'. A tinge of regret, perhaps, that Depeche Mode have often failed to convince the press and public of this country? Does the 'universe' they now mention so often represent the wider theatres upon which they've managed to work their seductive spell? Don't expect to be swept off your feet by Sounds of the Universe - rather, it seduces in unexpected ways. Anyone looking for the bangers of yore will be disappointed, but the suggestion that Depeche Mode have lost it is merely a blasphemous rumour. Instead, Mode Mk III are stripped to the bone and streamlined for the future.