Dave Gahan, Depeche Mode frontman for the last 40 years, considers himself an imposter. It is a frank and surprising admission, but makes sense when qualified with the observation that much of his time as a singer has been spent interpreting other people’s pop songs.
For this, his third album with Soulsavers‘ Rich Machin and Ian Glover, covering other people’s songs is the explicit aim – but the freedom it gives Gahan is immediately apparent. In a wide range of interpretations, we are reminded of the extremes of this recognisable pop music voice, but are also given access to his vulnerable side.
The singer himself will be 60 next year, and it is fascinating tracking the development of his voice over that time. In 1981 the fresh-sounding teenager powering New Life gave notice of his potential, but now we find Gahan lying in wait with barbed lyrics, even in soul songs such as James Carr’s The Dark End Of The Street. The powerful voice is a natural vehicle here, inhabiting a similar spiritual air to one of Soulsavers’ first collaborations, the Mark Lanegan-powered Revival. Cat Power’s Metal Heart heads in a similar direction, Gahan proclaiming salvation over against heady backing vocals, the song reaching for the sky.
Lanegan himself is one of the featured authors, which makes sense given some of the life events these two big singers have in common. Strange Religion, the centrepiece of the Bubblegum album, is a good choice and receives a natural, thoughtful account.
Gahan softens the vocal further for a hushed take on the popular Lilac Wine, and the accompaniment strips back in response. His delivery draws the listener in, with unexpected parallels to Pink Floyd in the husky higher register. This pointer resurfaces in Neil Young’s Man Needs A Maid, where Gahan sings movingly over a stern piano of how “I fell in love with the actress… she was playing a part that I could understand”.
At the other end of the volume spectrum, the distorted blues of Elmore James’ 1952 torch song I Held My Baby Last Night are initially alarming. Here the voice booms over a massive, Phil Spector-like crater of distorted guitars and cavernous backing vocals. Rowland S Howard’s Shut Me Down takes on a similarly vast profile, its intimate confessions swelling into a massive chorus.
These songs surely resonate with Gahan’s life experiences, but none feel more pertinent than Bob Dylan’s Not Dark Yet. With sharply observed characterisation, the lines “I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal” and ‘every nerve in my body is so naked and numb’ take our singer back to the 1990s. He relishes this encounter with the dark side however, finding solace in Gene Clark’s Where My Love Lies Asleep. The soothing backing vocals have a lead that, for once, recedes from emotional turmoil.
Two well-known songs may surprise new listeners. Charlie Chaplin’s Smile is a heartbreaker, the occasional ray of light allowed into the darkness of its piano chords. Closing the collection is Always On My Mind, stripped back to piano and voices and devoid of crooning, Gahan back in full confessional mode.
The songs are beautifully interpreted, but on occasion the reverb surrounding the voice is too much. Lilac Wine may successfully paint the unsteady gait of the singer, but it has a widescreen echo removing its intimacy. Smile, too, may have little more than a piano for company but the sonic panorama places Gahan up the other end of the room.
It is a qualified thumbs-up, then, for this darkly-coloured cabaret set. Dave Gahan’s emotional input is never in doubt, but despite some excellent production – and fine backing vocals – it is kept at a distance at times. Seen live, however, this set should be quite an experience.