It’s sad. I really wasn’t looking forward to the new release of one of my favorite groups from the ’80s—Depeche Mode. I actually lost faith in the group I grew up with after their last lifeless release, Exciter, was anything but. Even Ultra, which I liked still wasn’t up to par with someone of my favorite Mode albums of years past. It seems, ever since Alan Wilder had left after the Devotional tour, the band that I knew and loved had lost its creative edge. That is until I laid ears on Playing the Angel. Diehard Mode fans will find musical salvation again with the opening guitar-like siren sounds of “A Pain That I Am Used To.” After a few sinful spins, I knew Angel should have been called songs of infidelity and desertion.
Many ignorant critics are claiming that Angel sounds like Violator but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Angel actually is an amalgamation of Songs of Faith & Devotion, Black Celebration and yes, Speak & Spell. Believe me, it feels like Mode went back to the musical chalkboard to figure out what aspects of their past albums were their favorite and then incorporated them into Angel. The amazing thing is that Angel sounds anything but derivative. There’s a fresh, futuristic, bluesy, electronic vibe that’s been desperately missing from their last few albums.
The first thing you will notice is that vox Dave Gahan has three of his own songs on a Mode album. Some might see this as a curse but I feel it’s about time that Dave got his chance to incorporate his lyrical darkness to Depeche Mode. I feel Gahan’s got the rebellious Lennon-like edge to Gore’s soulful McCartney vibe. (I am not saying that Gahan writes like Lennon, but rather he has the Lennon persona of the group. That would leave Fletcher as Ringo and the now departed Wilder was the underappreciated Harrison of the band.) It’s that lyrical dichotomy that will strengthen the band and make them an even more darker and powerful force for years to come. Gahan brings a new energy to the band and I feel that this type of lyrical rivalry will lift Gore’s own exceptional songwriting to a new level.
I would love to say that all of Gahan’s songs are stellar but only one of his tracks “Suffer Well” is memorable. “I Want it All,” is Dave’s unfortunate attempt of trying to remake “I Want You Now” from Music for the Masses and “Nothing’s Impossible” is a triumphant attempt at a Mode classic but falls short. But at least he’s trying, and Gore is giving him the chance to incorporate his ideas into the band. Without this opportunity, “Suffer Well” wouldn’t have made it on Angel. Starting with a lyrical jibe at his band when Gahan sings, “Where were you when I fell from grace,” this personal statement from Gahan is one of the strongest on the album. Gahan is his own “Personal Jesus” as he sings with a memorable sincerity that echoes his feelings about being abandoned by his mates after his painful addition and near death experience with Heroin.
“I’m still recovering/still getting over all the suffering,” Gahan sings on, one of my favorite cuts—”The Sinner in Me,” my favorite part on Angel. Right after “Suffer Well,” you feel like all the songs are connected to make Angel some kind of dark epic. I love the Black Celebration-like theme of loss and religious imagery that’s layered over the album. There’s a reason it reads “pain and suffering in various tempos” on the sleeve.
You will find the addicting guitar feedback on “Sinner in Me” and dynamic choruses throughout Angel are a reflection of Faith and Devotion. Yes, the siren-like intro on “A Pain That I Am Used To” does echo the same opening as heard on “I Feel You.” And I don’t feel like this is some kind of mistake. Mode wanted to announce their return to form in such a grand and powerful manner.
As for the Speak & Spell vibe, you can hear it on most of every track on the record. This is due to Mode using analog equipment for the first time in years. You can hear those little cracks and beeps from those classic synths that make Angel a post-modern Speak & Spell with a dark, mature sound that was missing from the original release.
Some of Depeche Mode’s best songs are on Angel. I already mentioned “Suffer Well” and “A Pain That I Am Used To,” but I feel that the first single, “Precious” is classic Mode. It has a catchy electro vibe, Gore’s cherished lyrics and Gahan’s deep resounding vocal that make it a high mark in the Depeche Mode canon. I also love Gore’s electric take on the blues classic “John the Revleator.” It’s the type of song that Mode hasn’t attempted since the days of Faith and Devotion, and it’s a welcome return. Angel leaves us on a dark but high note with “The Darkest Star.” The track highlights the pure lyrical mysticism of Martin Gore. It has a hypnotic piano and the aching vocal of Gahan that all Mode fans can relate to. This song puts the black cherry on top of this record that I have been playing non-stop since its release.
Here’s hoping that Depeche Mode follow their own advice on “The Darkest Star” when Gahan sings, “stay as you are/the darkest star.” Depeche Mode fans, rejoice in the return of the glory and darkness from your favorite band. And hopefully, they will continue serenading us past midnight, the 21st century and beyond.