Heartfelt electro blues for the 21st century, but where does it sit in the pantheon of all-great Mode albums?
Oh God, here we go again: the sensation I always experience when first listening to a new Depeche Mode album. Shaky hands, fluttery tum, the odd combination of hope and unease while pushing play.
Devotees like me go in with our trepidation levels already set at 11, never quite sure what the band might unleash next. Where does ‘Delta Machine’ sit in the pantheon of all-great Depeche Mode albums? The simple answer is, if you liked the last three albums you’ll like this one. If you didn’t, well, there’s always next time.
‘Delta Machine’ was rumoured to be a return to the sound of ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ or ‘Violator’, but it’s more like a distant cousin. There’s nothing as arresting or melodic as ‘Enjoy The Silence’ nor any track as raw and powerful as ‘I Feel You’. Compared to both those albums, this feels decidedly underpowered and, singer Dave Gahan’s compositions aside, even the handful of uptempo numbers – ‘Soft Touch/Raw Nerve’ and ‘Soothe My Soul’ – sound painfully forced. The closing track, ‘Goodbye’, is the only time synthetic pitter-patter drum beats give way to something more substantial. By the end, you don’t half feel nostalgic for the days when a Depeche record sounded like 50 minutes of them hitting an old tin bath with a lump hammer.
Rather than dwelling on the old gripes about how the production might be lacking, it’s worth focusing on the biggest sea change of all, which has been with the band’s songwriting. The myriad glorious contrapuntal melodies which characterised chief writer Martin Gore’s earlier hits (‘See You’, ‘Shake The Disease’, ‘Stripped’ et al) are largely gone these days. It’s natural, of course, for songwriters to evolve. Yet ‘Delta Machine’ too often seems made up of fuzzy early drafts of songs from previous albums. The Gahan-penned ‘Broken’ sounds like ‘Little 15’ turned inside out, while new single ‘Soothe My Soul’ aims for the heights of ‘Personal Jesus’ but instead revisits ‘John The Revelator’. ‘Angel’, a lite version of ‘I Feel You’, is enlivened by a 6/8 time switch halfway through, but even then it lumbers where it should have swaggered.
In fairness, the opening ‘Welcome To My World’ would have held its own on ‘Music For The Masses’, the band’s first truly dynamic album. It builds from a muted beginning to a big rollicking chorus. Likewise, when Gore reflects on age and the loss of innocence in the wonderfully creepy ‘The Child Inside’, it’s as good as anything he’s done. Lyrics such as “Body parts are starting to appear / And scare the child inside away” make puberty sound like an episode of ‘Dexter’. It’s a shame this theme wasn’t returned to more on ‘Delta Machine’, as the thought of an older Depeche Mode really contemplating their own mortality is an intriguing one.
Although not really a blues record, ‘Delta Machine’ does find Gore leafing through his influences, taking in his early love of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, as well as soul-bearing greats like Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen. Wilko Johnson famously called the area east of London ‘the Thames Delta’ and this is Gore’s most brazen acknowledgement of that Essex blues heritage. The central riff of the languid ‘Slow’ could have been pilfered from Screaming Jay Hawkins, with its suggestion of things going all bump and grind down in the bayou.
However, while co-producer Gore appears to be largely calling the shots, Dave Gahan’s three songwriting contributions (written with long-time engineer Kurt Uenala) are among the most interesting tracks. On ‘Broken’ and ‘Secret To The End’, he outguns Gore in nailing the melodious Depeche Mode sound, even if his choruses still lack the knockout punch of a big memorable hook. The hazy Latino sway of ‘Should Be Higher’ slips by on the first listen, but it’s possibly the most startlingly original track on the album. It’s a pity that the rest of his contributions, plus one track co-written with Gore, are shunted off to the deluxe edition, in the same manner as their previous collaboration, ‘Oh Well’ from ‘Sounds Of The Universe’. Who knows why? It may be something to do with history and politics, two things Depeche Mode have always had in abundance.
From the outset, Gore stated that he wanted this album to sound modern, but listening to ‘Delta Machine’ it’s not entirely clear what this means. ‘My Little Universe’ seems to suggest ‘modern’ is the dirty electronica of Hot Chip or LCD Soundsystem. Yet despite zipping along to a snappy, tickety-tock beat, it’s a track which, like ‘Macro’ from ‘Playing The Angel’, is hamstrung by post-traumatic rock star spiritualism. Lyrics like “Limited consciousness preserves me / It protects me / And just connects enough / To keep the wolves at bay” suggest someone with their own personal Bikram yoga instructor on speed dial.
Depeche Mode’s modernity probably peaked at the Pasadena Rose Bowl, playing to an audience of preppy ‘Breakfast Club’ teenagers in the late 80s. It’s hard to imagine today’s mainstream American teeny EDM demographic going for ‘Delta Machine’ in the same way, even if they tend to look like a mere software upgrade of their ‘101’ counterparts. To them, this album is going to sound about as modern as a squeezebox. They’ve got their hands in the air to Swedish House Mafia, Calvin Harris and Tiesto. Mode fans one and all, ironically enough, but artists whose sugary electronic anthems have more in common with ‘Leave In Silence’, ‘Everything Counts’ or ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ than heartfelt electro blues.
The electronic youth market has gone pop just when the Mode have gone blues rock, man. The net result is that tracks like ‘Heaven’ and ‘Alone’, which start off being catchy and compelling, abruptly flatline as if worried they’d stumbled upon something overtly familiar, like a chorus. It’s a pity, because while yearning to be taken seriously as a credible rock band, they risk losing touch with the intuitive pop genius that made them so influential in the first place.
Bringing down the curtain on their trilogy of Ben Hillier produced albums, might the boldest move be for Gore and Gahan to work together on an unashamed euphoric pop album? You wish. Then again, you can never rule anything out with Depeche Mode. Which is what makes each new release so damned scary.