Ever since ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’, DM have simply not sounded like themselves. In fact it often sounds like they are trying too hard to keep the pieces together and aren’t managing as well as they should.
While this may be partly due to the considerable loss of Alan Wilder, who used to flesh out their soundscapes in the most articulate ways, they also seem to try a bit too hard to convince not just themselves, but the masses, that they’re still putting out music that’s as exciting and vital as ever: case in point, the last two albums, inappropriately labelled ‘Ultra’ and ‘Exciter’.
Well, they’ve been trying this fan’s patience a little bit.
While both albums had their fair share of good tracks (“Sister Of Night”, “Dead Of Night”, “Dream On”) and some great ones (“It’s No Good”, “Useless”, “I Feel Loved”), the creative energy has clearly been waning: not only have the albums been less than they were purported to be, but they also came after extended periods of inactivity.
Fans, in the meantime, have been offered compilations such as the two ‘Singles’ sets and the various ‘Remixes’ sets, which were meant to tide them over until the band’s next spark. While the former spawned an excellent new number, “Only When I Lose Myself”, the latter merely offered us a re-edition of one of their greatest hits, “Enjoy The Silence”.
Meanwhile, the band members have been working on their own separate projects, including solo outings by Martin L Gore and Dave Gahan, who amusingly released their album on competitive dates. Neither were tremendous by any means, and this added to the overall feeling that they had extinguished the flame.
In late 2005 came a new album, hot on the heels of the solo albums and the remix project.
Entitled ‘Playing The Angel’, and boasting the new single “Precious”, the disc has been faring fairly well in Europe, while it died a quick death in North America. I, myself, have not even purchased it yet, nor had I bothered to seek out the new single out of natural curiosity (this, coming from a die-hard who has collected most of the CD singles, videos, DVDs, and other products that they’ve ever released…). Instead, I ended up borrowing it from the library, deciding finally to test the waters and see if I should even bother anymore; a free listen isn’t such a bad deal in the end, and I wouldn’t have to get out of my way to get it, seeing as I’m always there anyway.
Turns out that it wasn’t a total disappointment. But, neither was it a great surprise: the album, like its predecessors, has its share of catchy bits followed by the usually tepid fare. This is not a consistently solid album by any means.
‘Playing The Angel’ starts off with the notable “A Pain That I’m Used To”, which may not be classic DM, but which, unsurprisingly, with its punchy beats and hooky guitar licks, is a single. Then the album keeps a decent pace for another 4 full tracks, through the catchy “John The Revelator” and “Suffer Well”, until the distinctly modern-DM “Precious” picks up from the gritty “The Sinner In Me”…
…only to be completely railroaded by the Martin L Gore vehicle “Macro”!
Oh, Martin, Martin, Martin…
The problem with Martin L Gore, is that, although his vocals are decent, and his songwriting is solid enough to have propelled Depeche Mode to superstardom from the mid ’80s to mid ’90s, most of the songs he is featured on are simply unbearable. There are some decent ones over the years, such as “A Question Of Lust”, “Oh Girl” and “I Want You Now”, but, for the most part, his faux-soul stylings are just retched. When he writes with Dave Gahan in mind however, the magic works – he generally finds the right words and the proper tone for the band’s rightful vocalist.
The album never truly recovers from that point on; Gore’s mood-killer is then followed-up by two relatively-okay Dave Gahan-penned numbers that could never be considered exceptional or memorable. In fact, one wishes that he hadn’t been so obstinate about infiltrating his own material on DM’s album, because, not only does it understandably stand out from the band’s other material – it serves to prove just how fragmented the band is at this juncture in their career: Gahan’s songs are not only on another label, but they’re also cowritten by two non-DM musicians.
Essentially, the album dies a slow death until the end. We are served with another Gore tune, at which point not even the somewhat upbeat -and enjoyably retro- “Lilian” breathes enough life in the set to seal the deal on an up beat.
In the end, one is left with the unfortnate feeling that Depeche Mode have withered slowly over time and that nothing short of living in the past will keep the fond memories alive. In fact, anyone discovering the band in this later phase would easily be excused for being completely dispassionate about them; ‘Playing The Angel’ most certainly won’t convert anyone anytime soon.
We give it a 6.5 out of 10.