Continuing down their path of trying to create more intimate and meaningful music, Depeche Mode fail to use their expertise in synthetic texture to enliven the rather apathetic musical layers, with the result being a sedated yet appreciative attempt at realism.
I wasn’t too sure what to make of Depeche Mode before this album, and I still don’t know what to make of them now. While I never take a musician’s history into account when determining the quality of their music, I must point out that Depeche Mode have always been more successful when melody is at their forefront. Yes, it comes off as lighter and happier, which has been unfortunately equated to fake by many, including the band themselves. This latest album is an obvious attempt at becoming more real to deal with heavier topics, and in doing so the melodies came off as soft and character-less. While the band may think their songwriting is very authentic, it was not worth the cost of completely diminishing the role of the melody. This synthpop/electronic rock genre is very hard to do without melodic prominence, since the overall sound does ultimately dictate the specific mood. The melodies here were simply too subdued and unenergetic for Depeche Mode to achieve power and cohesion. Each song follows a rather similar pattern of having long, slow, and unimportant melodic lines. Most of them do have a rather broad shape and nice register shifts, but they add nothing of real substance. The best examples of this are in “The Worst Crime”, “Poison Heart”, and “Poorman”. Despite the overall lackluster energy, these melodies were still quite easy to work with and listen to. Their plainness did not completely bog down the music, and actually did work well with the surrounding elements. While they may have given songs some smoothness and pleasantness, the melody by itself is quite boring. I’m not sure why Depeche Mode was so picky and decided not to use the element of melody to a fuller potential. Their personal gratification should not overshadow the creation of quality.
On this album, the harmonic structure started out as something of promise that drove the music. It then began to tail off into weird stagnation by the song “You Move” and completely lost its shine by the end. Apart from the song “Cover Me”, there weren’t any great uses of secondary or borrowed chords, even though this album was full of them. Aside from a few interesting transition moments here and there, the last half of the album had an airy and unfulfilling harmonic presence. Again, this band baffled me at their seemingly blatant decision to stop all interesting progression and stay put without pumping anything more into the song. The last song, “Fail”, sums up the disappointing harmonic usage of the entire album. The first few songs in the beginning, especially “Where’s the Revolution”, do make up for it a bit by involving lots of changes and chromaticism to the harmony, with strong decisions on the progression. When the harmony had a hold of the reigns and guided the song from start to finish, it was done rather well. On the other hand, when the harmony had no important movement, it failed to heighten any of the music’s emotion or purpose. Depeche Mode simply weren’t good at writing slow-moving harmonic structures here.
In this subgenre of rock, if the melody and harmony are this apathetic, one better hope that the timbre is extremely interesting and appealing with a strong emphasis in the music. Well, it was only barely emphatic enough, and the overall sound sadly settled down into a comfort zone that blocked the advancement of the music. Timbre is Depeche Mode’s defining quality, even here, and their cool instrumentation alone gives this album some worth. However, without enough basic motion or functional responsibility, their trademark synthesizer sound got to be rather messy and unexciting. “Poison Heart” is a good example of that. I appreciate their attempt to sound grounded and important by taking everything very slow, but in the end they couldn’t keep feeding the fire enough to stay invigorated. They tried to sound angry and make a statement, but the timbre mostly came off as sounding uninspiring. The backup vocals throughout were very well done; thankfully, it was a side of this band that wasn’t compromised by their overall goal. Overall, they had a great command of the synthetic sounds themselves, but they never quite created a truly effective texture with their combinations. At least they were rather consistent in their timbre, with their run-of-the-mill sound never being anything unbearable.
Depeche Mode was a very important and influential band to electronic rock in the 1980’s, inspiring many to continue down that path (and eventually surpass them). That was when they weren’t afraid to sound happy, though. These days, as exemplified by their latest release, they are so focused on realism that they go down a path they simply aren’t equipped for. The overall message of rebellion and resistance on this album does come across quite strong, which certainly adds a unique dimension for today’s market. That, along with the band’s established name, will equal a healthy amount of influence. The message does get overly repeated throughout, though, and it became rather watered-down to me by the end. Ironically, it kind of loses its spirit. It has a couple of neat songs, though, and can be enjoyed. I only see this as a album for big Depeche Mode fans, electronic rock historians, or someone who is interested in rebellion sounding very sedated and self-deprecating.
Final Score: 111/180