by Chris Familton
Depeche Mode have had a wonderful evolution and trajectory from their early lightweight disposable pop through the departure of Vince Clarke and Martin Gore’s rapid mastery of the fast changing technology in 80s music, to their peak as masters of psycho-sexual electronic pop music that finely balanced raw emotion and a self-constructed paradigm of art pop and futuristic rock n roll.
Post Songs of Faith and Devotion in 1993 the band settled into a rut of trying to make sense of their music as we all hurtled toward the end of the century. Their conundrum was whether to reinvent themselves or stick to the tried and true. They opted for the latter with minor tweaks but the resulting four albums were the band sounding lost and with only brief flashes of brilliance. Each was hailed in some quarters as a potential return to form but but upon review none of them hit the mark as full-length albums in the league of Black Celebration, Music For The Masses or Violator.
Fast forward to 2013 and the trio appear to be completely resigned to the fact that their ongoing success is down to the template they created on that run of albums and their phenomenal success of their live shows. Hence Delta Machine offers zero surprises in terms of new musical advances or lyrical diversions into new territories. They employ the same balanced mix of retro futurism built on Gore’s masterful songwriting and programming skills and Gahan’s voice that sees him often touted as one of the finest vocalists of the last thirty years, especially his ability to straddle the worlds of electronic, pop and rock music.
Across the album Gahan’s singing is as strong as ever and on Should Be Higher he even makes a bold attempt at pushing his vocal cords high into his range with the notes straining to their limit and peaking into a wonderful brief falsetto. It is his finest moment on the album, almost making up for the album’s average lyrics. The sound of Depeche Mode and its presentation have always been the preeminent keys to the appeal of the band. For the most part their songs never feel like intimate glimpses into the hearts and minds of Gore or Gahan and nothing changes that impression on Delta Machine. The familiar themes of sexuality, sin, guilt and redemption abound with religious metaphors coming thick and fast. Anyone coming to Depeche Mode with fresh ears will probably cringe at many of the lyrics but for those who have a history with the band it will be familiar territory.
Gore almost always gets a solo run on Depeche Mode albums and here he gets that chance in the vocal spotlight with The Child Inside that sounds like a sequel to Little 15 or I Want You Now on a billowing, faintly ominous bed of keys that acts as an an oasis of sorts amid Gahan’s masculine singing.
The first two songs that appeared online are the strongest on the album. Angel is a caustic and dirty minimal industrial groove with Gahan doing his sleazy Dave to great effect. The song kicks and bites yet Gore’s falsetto backing vocals balance it out before the beat doubles mid-song and it takes off. Heaven is almost the antithesis in that it is a slow and stately ballad with a glorious aching quality to the vocals amid some stuttering drum programming and Gore’s guitar phrasing reminiscent of the band Earth.
The most adventurous and contemporary song on Delta Machine is My Little Universe with its use of space and minimal electronics that embrace modern musical trends with retro components. It builds and holds tension without the need for a grandiose chorus and finds them at the most restrained and understated, a quality that is reinforced when they do go for the big glam chorus on songs like Soft Touch/Raw Nerve which comes off as cheap and lacking substance.
Depeche Mode leave us with the obviously titled Goodbye that ends Delta Machine on a high note with its bluesy stomp and twinkling synths. The subdued rhythms strongly recall Behind The Wheel and Personal Jesus but the song possesses quite a different Depeche Mode sounding chorus of uplifting grandeur that will no doubt sound huge live. For an album that highlights the band’s undeniable strengths – and glaring weaknesses, this is ultimately a very good album. It doesn’t get close to their career highlights but it does show that Gore and Gahan still have gas left in their songwriting tank and a reason to keep writing and recording together after thirty three years.
this review was first published on undertheradar.co.nz