Depeche Mode – Delta Machine
There's nothing worse than a band who plough on for too long. Witness Paul Morley's critical mauling of the Rolling Stones over their Glastonbury booking for an example of the kind of bile and resentment that can generate in certain, less forgiving quarters. So have Depeche Mode fallen into the same trap as Jagger's aging cadre? Or is Delta Machine a convincing return to form?
Let's leave aside the album's leading soft-rock ballad single, Heaven, for now – despite selling millions of albums worldwide over the course of their 30-year career, Depeche Mode could, presumably, always do with new fans and more money. Pandering to American daytime radio therefore holds barely any shame – it's a shrewd move to write something that might get the AOR-lovers out to the arenas and record shops.
Opener Welcome to My World bodes well, with pulsing electro beats underneath a slightly overbearing string sweep in the chorus, and Dave Gahan welcoming us back into his dramatic, diva-esque sufferings with an emotive, heartfelt performance. Angel is even more appealing, Martin Gore's guitar lines distorted and bit-crushed into electronic squalls while Gahan snarls, growls and croons. The mostly Gore-penned lyrics are audibly less tortured this time around, with Gahan singing "I've found the peace I'm searching for," but as the track breaks back down into snarling industrial blues, it sounds like that peace is far from assured.
Secret To The End, co-written by Gahan, is vintage 'Mode, a layered wash of synths underpinned by guitar flourishes and stuttering drums. Gahan's delivery is tortured once more, as he explores some dark territory, perhaps relating to his wilderness years: "It should have been you if it hadn't been me." Like many bands on their second or third lives, sometimes Depeche Mode sound like a pastiche of themselves, and this is a factor on Secret To The End – but given time, it's plausible that this could sit comfortably with the best of their illustrious back catalogue. In particular, the closing minute or so of driving, industrial rhythms and majestic, towering synth and bass is impressive.
Later, Broken, also co-penned by Gahan, repeats the same trick, using classic Depeche Mode aesthetics and updating them with some modern electronic gloss. The lyrics of Broken are less satisfying however, with Gahan administering some kindly advice: "When you're falling, I will catch you... You can make it, I will be there." Frankly, it wouldn't sound out of place in a Leona Lewis number, and the band could do much better. Sad as it is to say, some of Gahan's best work was born of intense suffering, and his account of the aftermath of that pain is less enthralling than accounts of the pain itself.
My Little Universe is another track aping the dynamics of Violator, although with a sheen of modern electro/house replacing the quintessential synth-pop time signature. Minimal and unadorned, it's perhaps the most convincing update of the Depeche Mode sound on offer here. Slow is mournful and spectral, the blues timing and filtered riffs approximating the house band in a David Lynch roadhouse. It's somewhat under-realised lyrically, but doesn't suffer too much as a result. Should Be Higher achieves a similar Violator-esque peak, with Gahan using his full vocal range over a beat that shows the band have at least paid passing attention to the likes of Crystal Castles and The Knife. Alone's towering synth lines are a little strident, and the lyrics verge on the self-indulgent, but they pretty much get away with it.
The Child Inside is ponderous, in similar balladic territory as Heaven, although with mawkish, under-realised electronica as a backing rather than under-realised AOR. It's surplus to requirements, yawn-inducing, but not insufferable. Soft Touch / Raw Nerve harnesses some of the stadium-scale power of Songs of Faith & Devotion, and will no doubt be a live highlight on their coming tour. Soothe My Soul is anthemic but its repetitive refrain is soon forgotten, despite some nice growling electronic bass. It's another cut that could fit with Faith & Devotion – this is perhaps the album's greatest strength.
Depeche Mode have created a suite of tracks that easily bridges the highlights of their post 80s back catalogue, and even if it never quite matches those peaks, it convincingly apes them, and breaks some interesting new ground. Closing track Goodbye, like several songs on the album, even steals a few melodic phrases, this time from Personal Jesus.
This may be the last time that the band can so convincingly cannibalize their own back catalogue for parts, but dedicated fans will find little to object to beyond the dismal Heaven. Ignore that, and it feels like a fitting closing chapter on an incredibly strong career for a band whose worship is justly deserved. But without serious reinvention next time, they have nowhere left to go – another album like this would simply be undue repetition. A complete reinvention, taking cues from their past but forging new paths, as on the strong Vince Clarke / Martin Gore collaboration on last year's techno-led VCMG, would seem like a good bet. But because it sticks so close to the tried and tested Depeche Mode formula, Delta Machine emerges as a good album, if not quite a great one.