Sunday, October 16, 2005

Depeche Mode

There's nothing quite like a return to form. Except that Depeche Mode never strayed too far, if at all. Sure, "Ultra" and "Exciter" weren't the huge smashes that "Violator" and "Songs of Faith and Devotion" were, but those latter two were the odd albums out, the point where Depeche Mode's cult most thoroughly intersected with the mainstream. “Ultra” and “Exciter,” on the other hand, were evolutionary steps the band took in light of Alan Wilder’s departure and singer Dave Gahan’s drug addiction and rehab, but that makes their respective successes that much more impressive.

The new “Playing the Angel,” however, may be the best Depeche Mode album since “Violator,” vying with New Order’s “Waiting for the Sirens Call” for best comeback – which is simply to say a consistent collection of songs, as opposed to a couple of cool singles and filler, like the New Order’s pale “Republic,” which gave us “Regret” and little else.

“Playing the Angel” was produced by Ben Hiller, who previously helmed records by Doves and Blur, but unlike Mark Bell, Bomb the Bass’s Tim Simenon and Flood (the producers of the past three or four Depeche albums) has no real identifiable sound. Maybe that’s why the focus here is so firmly on Gahan’s singing and Martin Gore’s songs, with Gahan contributing three songs and Gore coming up with “Precious,” one of the best singles the band has ever recorded and a conspicuous linchpin around the middle of the disc that holds the more rocky first half and the more spare second half together.

There are some sly and overt references to early Dm works, but rarely does the disc sound like retreads. That's harder to pull off than it sounds. Just look at Nine Inch Nails (who I like). Reznor only released four albums, and as much as I like this year's NIN offering "With Teeth," it does sometimes sound like Reznor's struggling to stay fresh and alive. Dude, try keeping it up for 25 years!

Glad to hear them doing so well.


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