With its minimalist cover evocative of early eighties Factory Records synth-classics, its impressive series of in-studio peeks, its disturbing promotional video for lead single “Wrong,” its numerous editions, and especially its playful yet enticing title, Depeche Mode’s new album Sounds of the Universe seems to promise a world of aural pleasure, maybe the right balance of Playing the Angel’s songs and hooks with Exciter’s lush textures and risks. Now that it is out, Sounds of the Universe suffers a bit from suggesting too much. The album as it stands is at first sadly underwhelming, but grows on the listener as familiarity with the songs increases. Often, hardcore fans insist that the singles are the least impressive work of their beloved band or artist, or maybe fall in the middle road. Sounds of the Universe’s first surprise is that “Wrong,” the album’s third track, really is one of the album’s best songs. While much of the album has the relaxed feeling to it that Exciter had (without verging into the sleepiness of “When the Body Speaks,” “Easy Tiger,” or “Goodnight Lovers”), “Wrong” is one of the few moments of intensity. It seethes with a dark urgency, as compelling as a suicidal drive on a rainy night down the wrong streets. Other songs that grab the listener’s attention and incite riotous hips include “Come Back,” possibly the album’s catchiest moment, “In Sympathy,” probably the album’s finest song, and “Fragile Tension,” a beautiful mid-tempo dance song with electronic flourishes and a delicate ache that shows what a perfect vessel of voice Dave Gahan has become in his older age. (The box set contains a “bare” version of the former that is all pounded piano chords and forceful rhythm, best enjoyed with a warm comforting beverage and a morose look on one’s face, staring out the window at a cold gray day—more on that later). For those who like Martin Gore’s voice, he only takes full vocal duty on one song here but it is one of his finest moments. “Jezebel,” along with many of the other best songs on the album, reinforces the idea of Depeche Mode as champions for the melancholic outsider. It holds up with “A Question of Lust,” “The Things You Said,” “Sweetest Perfection,” and “Breathe” as one of Gore’s finest moments as a singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist of great tact, delicacy, and nuance. The song conjures images and emotions of a tragic romance either fantasized or realized, a compassionate man seeing the public abuse of a sad and gorgeous woman—undeniably sexy but also full of mysterious pain—and longing to heal her psychic pain through the art of love. Unfortunately, this penultimate song of the collection is ravaged by the closing song, “Corrupt,” a reverse of the same idea where everything that is good about the previous song goes wrong.
The album opens in a way that suggests maybe you will be given a sonic tour of the universe. The opening minute could be the new THX sound system check. It all sounds good, destination unknown, next frontier, space cliché of your choice…until the opening words of the album tread trodden ground: “The way you move/has got me yearning.” The title is “In Chains,” and it is the first indication that much of the album is going to lyrically retread the past thirty years of the band’s work. Sin, bondage, suffering, lust, love not going right, an opponent’s faulty viewpoint, and the general populace’s misunderstanding comprise the bulk of the album’s lyrical content. Depeche Mode have great strengths and weaknesses; this album emphasizes both. It emphasizes their tendency to lush full sound and perfect production, to layers of electronics and synthesizers buzzing beautifully, their penchant for minor motifs and slightly dissonant melodies, and their ongoing dedication to making dance music that isn’t stupid or flat. It also emphasizes their inability to radically change any part of their sound, their limited lyric-writing, and their increasing tendency to include utterly forgettable instrumentals (this album’s is called “Spacewalker”—hey, I only report the facts). The weakest songs seem to be “Peace” and “Little Soul.” “Peace” is a positive song, deserving credit for a new direction in lyrics, with a nice spacey sound to it; though rather innocuous and as retro as the cover, it seems to serve no purpose, forgettable after it has passed, barely noticed while it is on. “Little Soul,” however, is cloying in every possible sense, a textbook of all the things Depeche Mode should avoid, the worst facets of the band. “Perfect” also ambles along, pleasant enough in its warm synths, its crunches and squeals, and its ambient room, but not compelling or emotionally gripping either lyrically or musically. It is too bad that the many people who buy the album are going to have these songs and not the stellar music hiding out on the bonus discs of the box set.
Unfortunately for the casual fan or the newcomer, the real treat is the “bonus” (read “superior”) material in the deluxe box set. When Radiohead put together their special box edition of In Rainbows, they put together gorgeous artwork, slipped in two 180 gram records (that annoyingly spin at 45 speed) of the main album for the audiophiles, provided an extra disk of good music, but made sure all the best stuff was on the original album that everybody would have access to, perhaps part of the democratic nature of the whole project. Depeche Mode has done the exact opposite here. They have put out a good album, but reserved much of the best material for dedicated fans. Depeche Mode seem to be implicitly challenging their fans, as if saying, “If you’re a real fan, you’ll slap down the hundred dollars for the box set and get the real deal. You can even wear a badge to show your DM pride.” This is especially sad and alarming given the current economy and the number of artists doing it. It seems most albums by established bands and artists now come out in a mind-boggling number of options. One would think that now would be the worst time to count on people having the extra income to drop on a box set, yet expensive special editions come out every month. Depeche Mode do it right here. With the exception that there is no vinyl in the box, it is what the ultimate fan desires: extra tracks, demo versions of new songs and old ones, remixes, videos of the making of the album and in-studio performances, books, and aesthetically brilliant but also manageable packaging. Unbelievably, some of the “demoes” are better than the album versions. Martin sings on the “Corrupt” demo, the song which closes the album (on a rather ambivalent note for this reviewer —the lyrical matter seems to follow in the seedy tradition of “Little 15” and “We Are the Dead of Night,” but does not seem to be from a character’s perspective), and every impulse of the original is exactly right. Reworkings here did a disservice to the song. Other demo versions, if they do not surpass the original, provide interesting alternate possibilities of what the song could sound like. Some of yesterday’s favorites are here to be freshly relived. One of Playing the Angel’s strongest songs, “Nothing’s Impossible” is here in a quieter version that is just as dark and delicious as the original, and “Sweetest Perfection” and “I Feel You” demoes are here for interested parties. But the most stunning material is the first five tracks on the first bonus disc. If Depeche Mode decided to release an EP (as they had planned to do with Ultra), this would be a perfect one. “Light,” “Ghost,” and “Oh Well” are as fine as Dave Gahan dance/mood DM songs go. “Light” pulls the listener into the collection in the way “In Chains” intended to but failed. “Ghost” shows what Dave Gahan learned making his impeccable second solo abum, Hourglass; the sexy atmospherics, steady beat, and excellent vocal work are all present in magnificent profusion. “The Sun and The Moon and The Stars” is a sonic treasure-chest, layered expertly by Martin and rounded out with his wavering high vocals romantically swooning, underscored by Gahan. “Esque” is the possibly the best instrumental Depeche Mode have yet done. “Christmas Island” and “Headstar” are its only contenders. “Oh Well” is another very strong dance-based song. It attacks and slithers and builds and pulls back and comes back harder with deliciously occilating textures. These five songs deliver on the promise that the beginning of the review mentions, make good on all the bizarre, old, analog and synth equipment Martin Gore is said to have been constantly buying from eBay during the making of the album. The end result is that one has to make their own version of Sounds of the Universe. In our increasingly mp3-based, iPod-driven music world, each person is left to construct their own universe, choosing what sounds best represent their vision of a trip to the stars and back. Fortunately, it makes brilliant headphone music.
By Kevin Larkin Angioli