It’s tempting to wonder how this album would be received if it surfaced under plain cover. Such is Depeche Mode‘s influence on the multitude of new electronic pop thrown at us this year, it’s clear the new offering would fit in immediately. Yet while said ‘new pop’ might throw its arms around the likes of Just Can’t Get Enough and Enjoy The Silence, it would have more trouble embracing a song like Jezebel.
And therein lies the appeal. Only a minute of opener In Chains is needed to bring realisation and context. This is music elevated far above their descendants; spiritual and personal, forging its own path at its own pace. With it comes an inner conviction, a cool serenity running through Dave Gahan‘s barely disguised croon.
Once again the theme of emotional cleansing runs through much of the lyrics, though this particular well of inspiration has not yet run dry. In Chains might be a reserved counterpart to I Feel You, but the theme of redemption is picked up more pertinently in Hole To Feed, co-written by Gahan, Christian Eigner and Andrew Philpott. The affirmative Peace brings Gahan closer to the mic, observing, “I’m leaving bitterness behind, this time I’m cleaning up my mind”.
It isn’t always thus. Wrong is a powerful single, in-your-face confrontational. The double-edged humour of Perfect protests its innocence too loudly (“I didn’t pull the trigger, it wasn’t me – I’m just a plain and simple singer”) while the closing pair end the record on a sour note. The slow Jezebel will attract interest for the empty glamour of Martin Gore‘s vocal, while Corrupt is a cold dish of revenge, cooked up but ultimately not served.
If there’s one criticism of Sounds Of The Universe it would be that the sound is too clean, too processed – not a criticism of Ben Hillier’s production skills but an observation that Gahan’s voice, usually rough round the edges, gets a relatively easy ride here. There are none of the raking textures afforded him on last year’s solo offering Hourglass, the flipside being that in tracks such as In Sympathy you feel like you’re in an empty club, with just Gahan and a slowly spinning glitterball for company.
Yet this is small fry. While lifetime achievements are deservedly handed out to the Pet Shop Boys, we’d do well to remember the band that have been around for longer – and have arguably proved more influential. Depeche Mode might be 12 albums down the road, but they’re not about to shirk a challenge – rather, they continue to appreciate in value.