Without mastering the art of reinvention, sustaining a career past the 80s has proven to be practically impossible. Sure, artists like Madonna, U2, Prince, and Michael Jackson sailed smoothly into the 90s and beyond, but a vast majority of their peers were not so fortunate. One of the most criminally ignored acts in that “List of Legends” has always been Depeche Mode. They’re one of the biggest selling bands of all time, they’ve gotten all of the critical acclaim anyone could hope for, they continue to sell out the biggest venues the world has to offer, and they’ve never really suffered any loss of public interest over their almost 35 year career. Yet, somehow, they’ve always been some sort of underdog for one reason or another. They’ve never earned a number one hit in their native UK (the biggest selling act not to,) they have very rarely had top-40 chart success in the US (they’ve only had 1 top-10 hit here,) but between album and concert sales, it’s abundantly clear that they have a vast, diehard fanbase the world over. So why then are they not grouped in with the likes of U2, R.E.M., The Cure, and even New Order more often? Songs like “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy The Silence” are considered amongst the greatest ever, albums like Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion are critically lauded, and as far as performance goes, very few are considered worthy enough to be in their league. Fast forward to 2013, the group are fittingly releasing their 13th studio album, Delta Machine, and it’s abundantly clear that Depeche Mode have some fight left in them.
As the album kicks off with the peaceful intro to “Welcome To My World” (the title immediately draws a parallel to Violator‘s opener “World In My Eyes,”) that sense of excitement eases in nicely. In true Depeche fashion (pun intended,) the track ends up growing into a big beautiful landscape of rock-worthy synths and strings that sound ready to break out into Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” at any moment. The song plays to the group’s biggest strength right off the bat: the classic vocal pairing of frontman Dave Gahan’s powerful baritone with principle songwriter/guitarist/resident genius Martin Gore’s delicate tenor. While not quite the authoritative opening that some of their previous works had to offer, “World” sets the scene for the album and transitions beautifully into “Angel,” which comes ripping through more like a bat out of hell. The song is an immediate highlight with Dave Gahan’s menacing vocal growl taking center stage in a way we’ve never heard before. The track itself harks back to some of the band’s darker 90s material, but manages to feel fresh as it takes an unexpected twist with a brilliant tempo change. Next up is Delta Machine‘s first single, “Heaven,” a softer, more peaceful song that juxtaposes perfectly with “Angel.” Dave calls upon his powerful belt to set the mood, a stark contrast to the previous song, as Martin handles the high harmony superbly. Three songs in, and the group has already exemplified how much range they have within this “Depeche Mode” sound they’ve created. Luckily for us, though, we really haven’t heard just how far they were willing to stretch that.
As to be expected, the meat of the album turns into a series of pace-changers, going from the first of three Gahan-penned tunes, “Secret To The End,” to the brilliantly restrained, video game-esque “My Little Universe,” which brings us to the two tracks that split the middle of Delta Machine. The first is the authentically bluesy “Slow,” showing the more guitar-driven side of the group. The track sounds just as much like a musical epilogue to “Personal Jesus” (1989) as it does to “I Feel You” (1991) as it does to “Heaven.” The song is half of one of the record’s most interesting pairings, along with “Broken,” a song that sounds like it belongs on 1986’s Black Celebration or 1987’s Music For The Masses, which is odd considering it’s another Dave Gahan composition (this is only the third album to feature his songwriting contributions.) With a witty, possibly even unintentional duo of throwback numbers, we’re reminded just how many sounds and genres this band really has covered over the years. Unfortunately, though, it’s the token Martin Gore-led track, this time in the form of “The Child Inside,” that brings the pace to a screeching halt. Where as some of the group’s finest numbers have featured Mr. Gore on lead vocals (“Home,” “Judas,” “A Question Of Lust,”) this one doesn’t quite have that monumental quality you would hope for, even despite his captivating vocals. The disappointment is indeed short-lived, though, as the energy is turned way up with “Soft Touch/Raw Nerve,” an upbeat, rock-esque number that has a simple, catchy melody that acts as a much-needed break from the series of “thinking” tracks.
So then we approach Delta Machine‘s final lap, beginning with the last of the three “Dave songs,” “Should Be Higher.” The track is his most solid contribution to the album, but ends up being not nearly as interesting as “Broken.” After the not-quite-intense-enough “Alone” finishes up, we’re treated to the moment on the album that, by this point, we are all clearly craving. “Soothe My Soul” is the kind of song that cuts through the pack and sticks with you long after the album is over. Luckily, the band didn’t ignore it and are releasing it as Delta‘s second single. “Soul” is brilliantly catchy, upbeat (as much as Depeche Mode has ever been upbeat,) and just generally feels like a melody people can latch on to. Taking several listens to find the brilliance in a song is nothing new for the group, but their biggest hits and most recognized material has always been relatively instant. “Soothe My Soul” fits into that category, while the vast majority of the rest of the album will need some time to grow before we can sort out the hidden gems. Delta Machine then wraps up with yet another guitar-led bluesy number, “Goodbye,” this one a clear descendant of their Violator album. The song is the most obvious descendant of “Personal Jesus” to date, but is by no means a carbon copy. It feels like a grand finale, but manages to remain subtle enough to fit in with the rest of the record, and before you know it, Delta Machine has come to an end.
As much as the album feels musically scattered, it’s one of Depeche Mode’s most effectively executed works in years. There was a clear direction here, and instead of making the same song 13 times, the group approached it 13 different ways. The band has always done that, though. You can go through any album in their catalog and you’ll find a strange cohesion between the songs that only make sense together in the sequence they’re presented. The difference here is that there aren’t as many tracks to pull out and let stand on their own. On Delta Machine, it’s clear that the group were going for something more soulful and raw, but the execution is unconventional and hard to follow at times. For Depeche Mode fans, that’s nothing new, but from an outside perspective, that can be hard to get into right away. I’m not sure that’s the point they’re trying to make anymore, though. Clearly the band isn’t in a place where top-40 radio is going to pay much attention to them, so it’s nice that they feel they can take risks and rely on beauty more than melody. Very little here is instantly captivating, yet somehow at the end of it all, I was left wanting to go back for more. In other words, mission accomplished. Delta Machine isn’t a perfect album, but it’s got a super endearing quality that is probably going to take a dozen or more listens to get to the bottom of. If anything can be deciphered at face value, though, it’s that Depeche Mode are undeniable living legends who are running circles around all of their peers…and that is a beautiful thing.