In 2013, 33 years into their career, Depeche Mode’s chosen medium of electronic music is still generally what people think of as futuristic. Computers are largely to thank, but really it is just a general progression of technology evolving so fast that it is amazing musicians and producers can keep up at all. Within this musical category that spans from John Cage to Skrillex, when groups tap into a signature sound, it is very much theirs, as it is unlikely that the technology was available to previously. Sometimes, the downside is that these same artists are reluctant to evolve their sound with the technology, as it is their signature aesthetic that brings home their paycheck.
Depeche Mode didn’t have a signature sound when they began. Their first single, “Dreaming of You,” sounds more like Devo than what Depeche Mode would be a few short years later, with each release seeing the sun setting below the horizon and leaving their sound in a perpetual night, never coming back. 1984’s Some Great Reward was Depeche Mode’s arrival at their own sensual and dark voice, bolting down their pop melodies with industrial effects and found sound, giving an organic and palpable undertone to synthetic music despite the fact that the “real” sounds were often from mechanical items.
Either way, it made them huge. On albums Black Celebration and Violator, the English group appealed to fans of the new wave and dance music that reigned in the ‘80s, later roping in gothic and alternative crowds, too. Martin Gore’s songs from the band’s prime still hold weight, testaments that even in the midnight bleakness, a hook is a hook, especially when delivered by devilish frontman David Gahan in a sultry baritone—a reminder of the night’s stars best seen while lying on your back.
It’s hard to hear this history in Delta Machine, Depeche Mode’s 13th and arguably worst album. Yes, the sun never rose again in Depeche Mode’s music, but the darkness now is muted as well. Depeche Mode of this millennium has gradually settled in between, like a tired city muddied with light pollution, with the difference between their previous offerings of the Ben Hillier trilogy redeemable in their inconsistency because of the occasional stroke of brilliance.
Only one song on Delta Machine features said “stroke,” though the singles do earn passing grades. “Heaven” sounds like a Victoria’s Secret commercial, manufacturing a lusty spell with economy. Gahan, Gore (with soulful backing vocals that sound so much like a lady that doubt still lingers) and Andy Fletcher connect as a unit like most bands do automatically, but this is now an attribute to point out for Depeche Mode. Yes, when the rest of the album connects three players with rice paper joints, a song with an actual backbone is something to celebrate—errr, black celebrate.
“Soothe My Soul” is a step down from this low watermark, probably inspired by the exercise (either a dribbled basketball or laser tag aerobics) and arriving at a point in the album that even OK songs seem like death row reprieves, a chance to ice your forehead after slamming it against your wall with such frequency.
Most of Delta Machine plays like fake musical, the type written in a sitcom to mock real musicals. “Angel” sounds like a cabaret performed at drag show in South Carolina, with Gahan’s low register so smoky that it’s phlegmy. “The Child Inside” is a cleared-throated encore of the same set. “Secret to the End” transports us to a schoolyard for a finger-pointing taunt, an uncomfortable listen that shifts into “My Little Universe,” seemingly written about a car. A car with the turn signal left on for eternity. The lyrics don’t really discredit this theory.
Delta Machine is not an album for diehards, and I’m hard-pressed to imagine it being for any human being. “Broken” has the electronic effects that were used in the title track of The Phantom of the Opera, which sounded like bad ‘80s music in the ‘80s (sorry, Andrew Lloyd Webber). Essentially, the real-world sounds on which their music used to thrive have somehow become reflective of the sounds made by cheap children’s toys. “Should Be Higher” hits this same vein, only with a borrowed beat and synth settings from Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
Depeche Mode has been an easy target for complaints of stagnancy, and, indeed, the band seemed to stop progressing in the mid-’90s like a child with a pot-a-day habit. And, Delta Machine is another example of this, but somehow, someway, the trio closes with a brief reminder of the band of pioneers that once played stadiums. “Goodbye” starts with a blues-guitar lead, similar to that of “I Feel You,” but with all memory of grunge brainwashed out of existence. It’s fine, but the song seems to end for a brief moment, and like a light switch raising the sun, the band turns on for a minute and a half of inspired music. The only word sung is the repeated “goodbye,” and you can’t help but think that this would be a great last moment for Depeche Mode, one last nod to their contributions and longevity, and it might make the remainder of Delta Machine, we hope, forgettable.