When discussing a new album by Depeche Mode, it's very easy to fall into two traps. The first trap is that of romantic nostalgia. After all, the band are knocking on the door of thirty years together, with only a couple of (extremely key) personnel changes. A new album is still a chance to rise or fall for anyone, although many of us are generally pulling for this group to do the former.
The second trap is to get so stuck in the group's past efforts that you'll never be able to accept that they're no longer making records from twenty years ago. Yes, Violator was an exceptional album, as were the three before it. But with the exit of Alan Wilder over a decade and a half ago, perhaps it's time to finally accept that they aren't exactly the same group as before. An album like Sounds of the Universe should have the opportunity to be judged on its own merits, and not how closely it mimics one of their past triumphs.
Which brings us to the group's latest, Sounds of the Universe. Things start out strong with "In Chains", allowing Dave Gahan a bit of soulful crooning in a nice vocal showcase piece for him. From this start it becomes apparent that the overly distorted guitar intros are missing. And in fact, while still present, the guitar overtones have been tempered into the mix, and to nice effect. It still gives them the full band sound that they've been toying with, but it finally feels like a more natural fit.
This mixed-instrument emphasis continues with "Hole To Feed", which has almost a modern blues feel to it. Lead single "Wrong" follows with a dark character study about being every which way wrong. Their new focus on vintage synth sounds with this record really ramps up with "Fragile Tension", "In Sympathy" and "Peace", although all still mixed in appropriately with a band/guitar sound.
Thematically, we are in comfortable Depeche Mode territory here. Subjects such as obsession, damaged love, spiritual yearning, and dark introspection are all at play. In fact, some of the lyrics are particularly devastating. With "Perfect", Martin Gore imagines what could have been while inside a crumbling relationship: "I didn't shoot, I didn't pull the trigger / It wasn't me, I'm just a plain and simple singer / I heard the sound, I turned my head around / To watch our love shot down."
Singer Dave Gahan contributes to three of the songs on the album. And while they're not co-writes with Gore, they fit in surprisingly well with the rest of the record, and help contribute to some of the soulful depth of sound. As has become customary, there are a couple of throwaway instrumental fillers, but they're neither problematic nor distracting. Pleasant enough segues that don't mar their surrounding songs.
The band's previous effort, Playing The Angel, explored some of these same sounds and ideas. It's not that things have all of a sudden taken a drastic turn. In fact, far from it. Sounds of the Universe is perhaps the clearest bridge between their old and new worlds that we're likely to get. But the real strength of the record is that it sounds comfortably like itself. It eschews some of their previous flirtations with a guitar Rawk! sound, embraces the fact that vintage synths are once again cool, and strings together songs that, even if they don't all impress individually, collectively create a compelling and rewarding listen. Multiple, in fact.
Sounds of the Universe is easily the most consistently strong release of the band's post-Wilder output. It takes some of the glimpses of a return to form from both Exciter and Playing The Angel and retains that energy, more or less, over the length of the record. But more importantly, this record seems to play to their strengths in a way that some of the previous efforts only hinted at. Which might not be such an easy thing to do after nearly thirty years. Fortunately, Depeche Mode are beginning to, once again, make it look easy.