Sunday, March 31, 2013

Driving down to the delta to start up the machine

Depeche Mode's 13th "Delta Machine" arrived just under a week ago.  So where are they at the 30+ years into their career point?  They can't do end-to-end perfect any more, but they manage to reference the best of their past and yet still sound evolved - not an easy trick to pull off.

Where previous disc "Sounds of the Universe" opened with a synth-warming-up swell - and was full of lush, detailed, over-flowing soundscapes, "Delta Machine" is content to start up as minimalist as possible, but just as powerful.  The punching, punishing grooves of "Welcome To My World" hit hard for quite a while - the grandiose melodic sweeps don't come in until the 1:24 mark - but when they do, boy do they come strong.  Gore and Gahan sound great alone, but they can sound even better together - proven once again here.  With these sultry harmonies and insistent, pulsing groove, Depeche Mode provide a fine "Welcome" to the world that is album number 13.  After the propulsive elegance of this track, it's a bit of a jarring change-up that the next track "Angel" is such a letdown.  Gahan's voice shows a raw, feral fury that recalls the "Ultra" days - when his voice on the album was stitched together from multiple recordings of mere seconds a piece - where he could barely sing a word as he recovered from the addictions that nearly ended his life in the mid 90's.  Returning to this style could have lent a vulnerability to this track - but the overly simplistic tone of the whole proceeding turns it into a wreck.  Things start to look up with the following tune, debut single "Heaven" - a strange choice for a debut single given how subdued the track is - but it shows Gahan working his pipes to the fullest effect, and with Gore/Fletcher's music behind, makes for a nice latter-day DM ballad.  "Secret To The End" harkens back a bit to the lush, over-filled soundscapes of the last album.  It's a bit cluttered, but it manages to avoid the pitfalls of past train wrecks like "Come Back."  Things get stripped bare again with "My Little Universe" - a track that is a headphone treat, as well as an odd animal.  Those who write about Nine Inch Nails have mentioned at times how their music has bits and pieces of Depeche tricks interspersed within Reznor's own ideas.  Here, Gahan occasionally sounds almost Reznor-ish, and the scattered distortion that crackles through the track is also very NiN-like.  Intentional homage?  Sheer coincidence?  This writer will never know, but it makes for a decent track either way.  "Slow" makes for another ho-hum track - again, it sounds like all the raw, bleeding-edge vocals of the Ultra era - but with none of the strength that infused those vocals.  Here the strength is gone, the beats plod, and the temptation to hit the skip button is high.

Gore has been, once more, sadly reduced to just 1 lead vocal track on the basic version of the album.  "The Child Inside" is ok, but it isn't one of the most interesting songs ever to feature him singing on.  Their extensive back catalogue proves how much better he can do.  He doesn't sing badly, certainly - his voice has stood the test of time - just disappointing knowing having the song sounds like it could have been so much more than the sum of its parts.
A returning feature of the last disc is the "slash" songs, this time with the stuttering "Soft Touch / Raw Nerve" - again a little overly busy, but far more measured than before - showing a song that could have been the train wreck like the aforementioned Sounds of the universe song - but instead is pulled off with restraint and manages to be good without caving in to excess.

Next-to-last track "Soothe My Soul" comes across as a magnificent long-after-the-fact spiritual sequel to "Personal Jesus."  It's a strutting, insistent slice of neo-blues+soul filtered through the Depeche lens.  As Dave intones that "I'm looking for you / when the sun goes down", the down-leaning synth hook that snakes along afterwards fits not only the words, but stands as just one more catchy, effusive piece of one of this disc's best tracks.  "Goodbye" is a truly elegiac closer, in the vein of Playing The Angel's "The Darkest Star" - it's another showcase of fine Gahan/Gore harmonies - and a track with sounds bent and twisted to match the anguish in the voices in a haunting way - a fitting closure for the album.

On Sounds of the universe, Depeche Mode brought a disc that had some gems, but was overall "just ok" - here the quality level is squeezed in a different direction - the tracks that are ridiculously good mean trade-offs with previously mentioned not-so-fun tracks.  Even with these not so fun tracks, this is still a worthy album, and proof that 30+ years into their career, the "boys from Basildon" still know how to do it well.

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