Spirit is a brooding and muscular return to form for Depeche Mode, while also being their most aggressive and political record yet.
When a band like Depeche Mode is on its twelfth album and its members are pushing sixty, it’s easy to assume that they’d be content to rest on their laurels.
As we’ve seen from bands like U2, any continued output becomes more of a depressing obligation, a hapless quest to reclaim the glory of their youth – albeit without the teeth that made their earlier efforts so memorable.
This was a label that Depeche Mode had veered dangerously close to, especially given the good-but-not-great results of their previous releases. 1997’s Ultra was a cathartic reflection on the dark, drug-addled times that almost tore them apart, 2001’s Exciter took on a sleek, chilled out electronic sound more concerned with style than substance – and their last three releases – 2005’s Playing the Angel, 2009’s Sounds of the Universe, and 2013’s Delta Machine were all cut largely from the same cloth. They were all produced by Ben Hillier, and generally unevolved from their demos. But qualms about the production aside, it was guilty of the worst thing – complacency. Depeche Mode have never in their distinguished career put out a truly bad album, but their recent efforts had never been anything more than mediocre or outright forgettable.
It’s not hard to blame a band when they reach that stage of that career – after all, what more can be done after you’ve all done it all?
As it turns out, they are still very much full of surprises. After wisely abandoning the increasingly anaemic production work of Mr. Hillier, Depeche Mode have established a brand new canvas, but with only a slightly different set of brushes. Producer James Ford, known for his work with bands such as the Arctic Monkeys and Simian Mobile Disco, took up the reins. Given his much more qualified experience in producing for electronic bands, he proved to be an inspired choice, and it’s the first DM album since the Flood days that the organic elements are actually seamlessly integrated with the electronic ones.
Tracks like ‘Going Backwards’ and ‘Poison Heart’ wholeheartedly embrace the blues-inspired swagger that had only been hinted in previous attempts, and the arrangements are rich and truly soulful. Even better, the standard electronic fare is revitalised, and Ford makes every effort to twist, bend and distort any synth, patch or drum sample to make it just that little bit more wonky and unpredictable.
After the somewhat underwhelming first single ‘Where’s the Revolution’, I had the fear that the band were neither going backwards or forwards, but were happy to continue embracing the bland adult contemporary undertone that had been plaguing their recent releases. As the band’s lead vocalist had acknowledged on several occasions, what right do such a successful group of musicians have to comment on the world’s troubles and injustices, when they’re so far removed from them? Undoubtedly, these sentiments do come out somewhat naïve and clumsy, yet thankfully it doesn’t define the album.
But this potential blandness is thankfully offset by the innovative and caustic directions that the album takes. An early highlight is propulsive, highly danceable banger ‘Scum’. It’s Depeche Mode at their angriest and most menacing, as lead vocalist Dave Gahan snarls at the song’s nameless subject to “pull the trigger” between staccato drum machine blasts and ominous walls of distortion and reverb. More Nine Inch Nails than ‘Enjoy the Silence‘, it’s evident that the band certainly feel there are now things in this world important enough to break the silence over. Although Spirit never directly takes on a specific issue, it’s apparent where the band stands in general. Subsequent statements from the band themselves lend further credence to just what their actual views are – free from the alternate interpretations of certain right wing demagogues.
The rage is balanced between momentary pivots into more standard Mode territory – with moody, atmospheric ballads in the form of ‘The Worst Crime’, as well as the contractually obliged Martin Gore solo ‘Eternal’.
The album makes an appropriately pessimistic finish with ‘Fail’, which manages to meld the lullaby like melodies of something you’d hear on 1986’s ‘Black Celebration‘ with a pounding industrial backbeat – topped up with a slick, 21st century electro-tinged polish. Gore believes the world is going to shit, and that no one seems to care enough to change that. And if there ever needed to be a reason for a band to break a long-running unofficial embargo on explicit language, then the state of the world as it is now seems to be a pretty apt one.
Spirit is not a perfect album, but it’s the first in a while that the band have felt truly engaged with the music that they’re making. The sad state of the world has injected life into this band once more, yet no matter how fuzzy and trite their sentiments might be, they have the benefit of Ford’s fine production work to elevate these feelings into pillars of darkness and fury.
The band may have never truly lost their passion, but it’s been a while since it’s been at the forefront like this. And it’s been even longer since they’ve sounded this good.
Based in: Originally formed in Basildon, England – although both Dave Gahan and Martin Gore reside in the United States.
Sounds like: Nine Inch Nails, Phantogram, Goldfrapp.
Say what? Dave Gahan really did not appreciate Depeche Mode being referred to as ‘the official band of the alt-right’.
Over and out, Darren.