Album Reviews

Depeche Mode – Playing the Angel

(Mute) UK release date: 17 October 2005


Close your eyes and you’d think we were back in the good old days of the concept album. From the title to the footnote on the back of the CD – “pain and suffering in various tempos” – Depeche Mode are in spiritual territory. Lest that footnote sounds awfully gloomy, I should add that much of the music soars, producer John Hillier (Doves, Blur) adding an appropriate otherworldly dimension.

Virtually every song has a religious dimension, whether or not the narrator is a believer. Not totally unfamiliar territory for a band that recorded a hit anthem called Personal Jesus, but even so there’s more here than in the past that speaks of the search for – truth, wholeness, something

The title comes from the lyrics of the closing song, The Darkest Star. “Oh you sad one / Playing the angel isn’t so easy where you come from / Oh you wild one / Devil’s companion…” This is perhaps the darkest track, starting with low-key electronica and some discordant keyboards, then developing into a slow and melancholy ballad. Damaged People shares some of those characteristics but adds a lovely melody, before returning to dissonance that perfectly fits the wistful lyrics of a warped love song.

Other songs are much more upbeat. John The Revelator is a standout track from the first hearing, Dave Gahan’s powerful vocals establishing this as a worthy follow-up to previous anthems, but with more in the way of gnashing and whirring from the electronics department. “John the Revelator / he’s a smooth operator / it’s time we cut him down to size…” – we’re talking the Biblical St John the Divine here, in case you hadn’t twigged; you know, the one (possibly) responsible for the book of Revelations. Whatever, a great song.

This album is full of them, actually. After his solo album, Dave Gahan gets himself on the composition credits for the first time with three songs: Suffer Well, the dreamlike, swirling I Want It All and another standout, Nothing’s Impossible. This kicks off with an insistent rising bass line, bleeps for a bit and then turns into a classic. The menacing opening lines – “Just give me a reason some kind of sign / I’ll need a miracle to help me this time” – morph into a great love chorus. “Even the stars look brighter tonight / nothing’s impossible / if you believe in love at first sight.” Irresistible.

Macro takes us to another place altogether, starting with a (literally) pulsating beat as Gahan sings of hearing his own blood flow while contemplating the cosmos – rather a fascinating concept. Precious, already released as a single, is perhaps the airiest of all the tracks, a lovely, simple song in which Gahan’s voice floats above a relatively simple treatment. There’s a feeling of open space; perhaps I’m over-fantasising here but it really gives me the feeling of flying, swooping over the base earth below…

OK, enough. As you may have gathered, I like this album a lot. Some may say it doesn’t move Depeche Mode forward a great deal; I say I don’t give a damn, it’s a real treat and I’ll have some more, please.


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