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.