Spirit will more than likely fade away as quickly as any micro-revolutions it inspires.
Back in the ‘80s, when Depeche Mode was cementing its sound in the consciousness of both mainstream and alternative music listeners, it was unique. Despite early beginnings that clearly and perhaps embarrassingly focused on bubblegum pop, like the irresistibly buoyant “Just Can’t Get Enough,” something happened that changed the sound of its music and the course of its career. The band’s lyrical content got dark. The group crossed pop music and with brooding themes in a catchy way that was as suitable for the trendy club dance floor as it was for an industrial event in a fringy inner-city warehouse.
The band’s 14th album, Spirit, does a decent job of walking the same old thematic lines, but the current world climate has raised the bar considerably for anyone who wants to sound dark and angry in 2017. Listening to Depeche Mode now is only as morose as your sense of nostalgia — especially when held up against artists like Nine Inch Nails, Acretongue or even Marilyn Manson.
So when you hear Dave Gahan’s call to action “Where’s the revolution?/ Come on people you’re letting me down,” it falls a little flat, and sounds almost quaint. The same thing happens on opener “Going Backwards,” launched with minimal and earnest piano chords while Gahan’s up-front voice reports rather ineffectually, perhaps to distance itself from notorious white nationalist fan Richard Spencer, “We are not bigots/ We have not evolved/ We have no respect/ We have lost control.” A beat drops that gives these words the gravity they need to be taken seriously, but it’s too little too late. The track winds up steeped in the fantastic production and electronic music we’ve come to expect from Depeche Mode–but the drama is lost. Similarly, the melodramatic “Scum” aims for the acerbic with lines like “Hey scum!/ What have you ever done for anyone?!” while rolling along the rails of whimsical synth lines and opposing ominous pads.
Musically, the album is as strong as ever. “Poison Heart” is pure genius, finding a soft spot somewhere between the soulful throwback of Amy Winehouse and a plodding industrial monster. “Fail” is just as unique, as Gahan delivers a quivering filtered vocal that would be right at home on an Underworld record. Surprisingly, it works, and despite its unexpected nature, after several listens it ends up one of the most interesting tracks on the record.
Depeche Mode remains absolutely true to its fans, and its latest album is a welcome and worthy addition to the catalog. Yet nothing stands out as a potential hit or even a particularly moving standout. There is no “Personal Jesus” or “Strange Love” or “People are People”. The band will undoubtedly release a few singles from the album, and these should find an audience by virtue of the fan base it’s built over nearly 40 years in the business. Unfortunately, this Spirit will more than likely fade away as quickly as any micro-revolutions it inspires.