| Artist: Depeche Mode|
CD Title: Playing the Angel
Reviewer: Joshua Heinrich
Following up 2001's lackluster Exciter, an album that, self-admittedly, found Martin Gore's songwriting prowess on something of a downward spiral, Depeche Mode's Playing the Angel recaptures the energy and drive of the band's peak, recalling such landmark albums as Violator and Black Celebration. Frontman Dave Gahan, hot on the heels of his slightly more rock-oriented solo outing, contributes 3 tracks here, his first commercially released songwriting contributions to Depeche Mode's catalogue. Gore, on the other hand, seems to have rekindled a spark of creativity, serving up some of the most infectious and compelling work he's delivered in the last decade, certainly, if not his entire career. Throw producer Ben Hillier's contributions and affinity for analog synthesizers into the mix, and you have an album that recaptures the sound of the band's work circa 1985-1993 yet remains fresh and relevant.
Two of the Gahan-penned tracks, "Suffer Well" and "Nothing's Impossible", are among the disc's most memorable and enduring. The former recalls mid-80s Depeche Mode, a rhythmic offering a la "A Question of Time" with a classic soaring chorus, while the latter is a plodding, emotional dirge with a spectacular chorus. Gahan's third offering, "I Want it All", is, in fact, a lovely ballad that's almost equally impressive.
The rest of the material was written by Gore, save for "John the Revelator", a take on the 1930 blues/gospel song by Blind Willie Johnson. While it is, notably, probably the least characteristic Depeche Mode track here, its simple rhythmic delivery and gospel backing vocals cohere into something spectacular. Andy Fletcher contributes bass guitar to the opening "A Pain That I'm Used To", a particularly impressive track with a rhythmic verse and pounding chorus that is part pulsating synthpop with pseudo-western flair and part superior counterpart to Exciter's "The Dead of Night". "The Sinner in Me" doesn't particularly standout, a fairly standard moody darkwave track with a more impressive chorus, while the excellent club single "Precious" is, quite possibly, one of the catchiest synthpop tracks the band has released this side of "Enjoy the Silence".
Gore provides vocals on "Macro" and "Damaged People". The former is a flamboyant but fairly effective abstract ballad whose blend of sparse electronic percussion and cascading electronic collages almost recalls Bjork save for a more cohesive, well-produced chorus and a slightly unsettling layered guitar finale. The latter is more impressive, blending the vibe of some of the band's 80s Gore-fronted ballads with something a quirky carnival sonic motif. Think Depeche Mode's "A Question of Lust" meets Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Carousel", if you will.
"Lillian", easily the simplest and most straightforward track here, based largely around a single riff, also happens to be one of the most powerful, sporting excellent vocal melodies and rock intensity. The closing "The Darkest Star", however, returns to synthpop ballad territory with moody piano work that showcases somewhat Bowie-esque chord changes and theatricality. The requisite instrumental, "Introspectre", rounds out the set. It's actually one of the band's stronger one-and-a-half-minute interludes, a moody offering that fits into the flow of the album very well.
While, only a few years earlier, the band's future was in question, the spectacular Playing the Angel not only reaffirms the band's staying power but also proves to be one of the band's most consistent and compelling. Dave Gahan, sporting what appears to be a massive growth spurt in songwriting prowess since his solo debut, not only delivers vocally, but also offers up three of the album's best. Gore, despite a couple of slightly less impressive tracks, contributes a number of songs that are nearly as strong as the band's past singles…and Fletch…err…plays bass guitar on "A Pain That I'm Used To" like a champ. Likely to appeal to fans of the band's work from the 80s and early 90s as well as restore the faith of those that weren't particularly impressed by Exciter, Playing the Angel is an impressive synthpop album that proves there's still quite a bit of life in the DM machine.
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