Album Review: Sounds Of The Universe by Depeche Mode
Very Good, Based on 10 Critics
AllMusic - 80 Based on rating 8/10
2005's Playing the Angel proved to be one of Depeche Mode's strongest albums -- the combination of Ben Hillier's production, the emergence of David Gahan as a songwriter following his initial solo effort and a clutch of striking songs that openly embraced arena-level bombast following the much more subtle Exciter resulted in wide praise and a well-received tour. As a result -- especially given the return of Hillier, the first producer to work on two Depeche albums in a row since Flood's heyday with Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion -- Sounds of the Universe was initially suspected of being Playing the Angel redux, something the swaggering lead single "Wrong" didn't undercut at all. After all these years, though, Depeche can still pull out surprises, and what's quite astonishing about Sounds is how they've returned to the equipment and textures of their early-'80s work in particular while reworking it to match both Gahan and Martin Gore's current lyrical and songwriting techniques.
Almost exactly three months ago to this day, myself and some friends were sat in DM, Estonia's premiere Depeche Mode-themed bar. The reason we had gone was, of course, because we thought it would be funny. It was not funny. It was 2am on a freezing Monday night, the bar was completely deserted apart from us, a barman who looked so sick of portentous gothtronica that the only thing he’d offer Dave Gahan if he walked in was another speedball, and a DJ busy spinning incongruously hi-NRG choons in the adjoining (and entirely empty) club area.
It's rare for a band to be considered relevant nearly 30 years into their career. Thanks to this decade's proliferation of electro-pop practitioners, you might say Depeche Mode lucked out. Or maybe there's more to it. [rssbreak] Like 2005's pleasantly surprising Playing The Angel, Sounds Of The Universe, their 12th album, is a triumph, though more cunning in its method.
Even those born in a bat cave would have a tough time sustaining the level of broody nocturnal drama that England’s dark lords of dance-rock have maintained for nearly 30 years. Somehow, though, on Sounds of the Universe they still sound genuinely inspired, especially on tracks like the fragile ”In Sympathy” and the hypnotic ”Peace.” Lead single ”Wrong” revisits classic black-heart Mode, but there’s something gentler here, too — not so much a softening as a graceful evolution. B+ Download This: Listen to the song ”Wrong” on last.fm See all current music reviews from EW .
"They're a singles band," sniffed a friend, dismissing Depeche Mode's influential career. Even if one were to agree with that blithe assessment, there's no way Depeche Mode could be dismissed as just a singles band, given their track record on the charts and in the clubs, a string of hits that have hung in there to varying degrees of ubiquity. Sure, the singles sometimes remain standouts, but the rest of the tracks-- especially on albums like Music for the Masses and Violator-- are hardly filler.
Twenty-nine years in, Essex's electro-pop overlords Depeche Mode are stilllayering innocent melodies with S&M fantasies. Following on from the dark shades and light touch of 2005's Playing the Angel, the band stay true to their industrial roots on hypnotic invocation Peace and the gently sneering In Sympathy. They're most alive, however, when their spacey bleeps and shuddering keyboards expose their intrinsic, intriguing sleaziness.
As globe-straddling, stadium-filling artists go, Depeche Mode are certainly among the most strange. Very much a product of their distinctly late 20th-century environment, they emerged from the concrete new town of Basildon in 1981, a pop vessel for the JG Ballard-inspired ideas about sex and technology their label head, Daniel Miller, explored on 1978 single Warm Leatherette/TVOD while recording as the Normal. They instantly became Miller's golden goose, although their dramatic journey from well-scrubbed synth act, singing snappy tunes about industry and sadomasochism, to international statesmen of electro-pop, surviving internal wrangling and singer Dave Gahan's attempt to kill himself with heroin, overshadows a strong back catalogue.
It’s probably safe to say that most of us aren’t expecting Depeche Mode to blow our minds anymore. Which isn’t to take away from the many excellent songs they’ve produced over the years, or the undeniable influence they’ve had in shaping the modern pop landscape. It’s just that this band, along with the Cure, R.E.M., and any other band that was awarded its canonization when the first wave of post-punk was still stalking the underground, is nearing a time in its lifespan where we’ve really gotten to know them.
Depeche Mode, now completing their third decade as the world’s finest purveyors of electronic mope rock, continue to defy the laws of pop culture. The band that would go on to influence everyone from the Crystal Method to the Killers saw their commercial peak back at the dawn of the 1990’s, when hair metal was giving way to grunge and frontman Dave Gahan pleaded with us to “reach out and touch faith. ” But it wasn’t too much longer before the Mode looked ready to retire their synths and S&M gear altogether; Gahan’s suicide attempt in 1995 and subsequent speedball overdose made more headlines than 1997’s Ultra, and pretty soon a handsomely packaged greatest hits compilation was on shelves.
There's no brave new world for Depeche Mode. The UK trio's impeccably produced 12th album orbits back around the black-hole romanticism and sonic flourishes of its 1980s catalog with some welcome success ("Wrong," "Fragile Tension"). Dave Gahan's songwriting ("Hole to Feed," "Miles Away/The Truth Is") has improved since 2007's solo Hourglass, but this Sounds like a mundane midlife crisis.