Dave Gahan is looking pretty good for having fronted Depeche Mode for 22 years, and having been involved in all the standard excesses associated with rock stardom including battles with drug addiction in the ’90s.
All cleaned up, with a new wife and family and a whole new outlook on life, Gahan has teamed up with multi-instrumentalist New Yorker friend Knox Chandler to write his first ever solo album, Paper Monsters.
Produced by Ken Thomas of Sigur Rós fame, the album was recorded in New York in an open-ended, back-to-basics manner. Sultry photographs of Gahan on the cover could be of a latino matinee idol – slicked back black hair, sharp suit and ironic expression – and, it has to be said, this is a very seductive album.
Opening track Dirty Sticky Floors – also the first single to be released – is a thumping good rock song about the seamier side of the life of a star – “Waiting for the last drop / Seems like a long long time / Maybe I should go back home / I’ll sit and wait right by the phone / Praying over the porcelain throne / On my dirty sticky floor…”
Hold on, A Little Piece and Stay are much mellower, the former in particular sounding somewhat like a cleaned-up Lou Reed composition, Gahan’s voice even seeming to mimic Reed. These tracks are slow, sensual, slightly mournful but ultimately optimistic – far from the monsters of the title, a reference to both the horrors of the past and the everyday difficulties of life.
With Bottle Living we’re back on the seamy side with the uncompromising chorus “So call before you drown / I won’t always be around / He’s living for the bottle”. We stay that way for the mesmerising Black and Blue Again, a real stand-out track that’s both sleazy and seductive, with Ry Cooder-like guitar over a bass and rhythm section worthy of Nick Cave. As the pressure builds sharp strings add tension (think Psycho in their effect) and Gahan’s voice reaches breaking point. Terrific stuff. There’s no doubt that these tracks exploring his “Evil Dave” side, as Gahan has half jokingly said, are compelling.
I Need You pairs a perky club beat with relaxed vocals and gentle electonica; Bitter Apple is a slow, string-led ballad full of hope. Hidden Houses is another great track in the creepy genre: unexpected intervals build a feeling of unease as the lyrics reveal the secret life of someone living a lie, against a relentless guitar, drum and synth backing. Closing track Goodbye starts slow and spooky, builds to a wild guitar climax and then leaves us hanging on a final calm note of optimism.
What a terrific solo debut. Paper Monsters is both fresh and supremely professional, borrowing snippets and feelings from many other eras, genres and artists but creating something that sounds completely new. The overall effect is exciting, at times unnerving, at others blissfully serene. But always interesting.