I reviewed Spirit last week for XS Noize and did so having listened to the album twice in quick succession, basing my review on early impressions of the record. Obviously, being the person I am, it takes a lot for my first impression of any new Depeche material to be anything other than rapturous, but I think that review was even handed enough. I decided to leave my own review for a week to allow the album to sink in more, so that I could offer a perhaps more considered view of it, finding any flaws and taking these into account here. I've played a it a few more times, albeit not enough to dim the excitement that will arrive next week on the actual release date when I have the physical release in my hands, and I have to say that my opinion of the album hasn't changed. If anything, Spirit has grown on me more and, to my ears anyway, we have something of a late period Depeche Mode classic on our hands with this release.
Much has been made of the political slant of the album with lead single Where's The Revolution delivering a message that chimes perfectly with the troubled times we find ourselves in. That message is open to interpretation of course, as is amply highlighted by hatemongering alt-right buffoon Richard Spencer's recent assertion that Depeche are "the official band" of his tribe of racist lunatics. The band were quickly to politely but firmly play put that to bed and Dave has gone even further in an interview with the New York Post today (http://nypost.com/2017/03/09/depeche-mode-rails-against-the-alt-right/). What Spencer and any other clown thinking Depeche Mode are aligned with any of these right wing fonts of fuckwittery fail to appreciate is the band's history and that history resonates throughout Spirit.
Before Depeche Mode turned full on leather clad Berlin based globe conquerors they displayed a social conscience unusual in the pop world of the early 80's. 1983's Construction Time Again took pot shots at big business (Everything Counts), feared for the environment (The Landscape Is Changing) and told us that the only way to improve things was to have a revolution, albeit a gentle one (And Then). Those songs displayed a naivety, the type that people in their early 20's experiencing success are wont to make, but its innocence made it work. The theme of many of the songs on Spirit could be said to be the same, but this time it's viewed through the cynical, world weary eyes of 50 somethings, filled with anger instead of hope.
At this point, before I set about the album itself and stop banging on about Construction Time Again, it's worth pointing out that this album isn't Construction Time Again, nor is it Violator, Black Celebration, Music For The Masses or even Exciter (thankfully). No new Depeche Mode album is ever going to be like any of those and to expect that or to get angry when it doesn't sound like them is a waste of energy. My one fear was that we'd find ourselves still stuck in the bluesy swamp of the last two albums but the change of producer from Ben Hillier to James Ford has in the main dispensed with that sound and has seen the band's sound refreshed, producing Depeche's best album since Playing The Angel or perhaps even since Ultra.
Opener Going Backwards sets the tone for the album and does so impressively. One of the first things that strikes you is the sound - this is far different to Delta Machine and mercifully Sounds Of The Universe both of which managed to sound overproduced yet muddy in places. Going Backwards is unmistakably Depeche Mode, but it has a nice aggression to it with a sparseness that makes the song a standout here. Dave's vocals are superb too, placed beautifully in the mix, maximising the effect of the song's sound and lyrics, where Martin writes about technology screwing society up and leaving us slaves to it, dulling our senses to the point we don't care anymore. This is as bleak as Depeche Mode have sounded in a long time and that's a welcome thing in my book. Where's The Revolution follows and I've discussed that before so there's no need to go through all that again. As a choice of single however, it's interesting as I can't quite put my finger on why it was released. It's a safe choice in that it acts as a bridge between the last two albums and this one and it's an introduction of sorts to the themes of Spirit. It's not an especially brave choice though. I'd like to have seen something like Scum or even You Move released first, just to wrongfoot people. Anyway, I like Where's The Revolution and that's that.
The third track, The Worst Crime continues the album's theme of doom and despair with its tales of lynchings and bemoaning the fact we have committed some crime or other, sealing our own fate. Martin wrote his songs on this album in late 2015/early 2016 so they predate the twin horrors of Brexit and Trump, but his lyrics really do have a relevance that they've not had for a long time, especially in this opening quartet of songs. The Worst Crime is a slow, dark lullaby of a track that suddenly pounds into life in places before disappearing again and, sonically, it's a cross between Delta Machine's blues and Dave's Soulsavers project. Indeed, it reminds me so much of the latter that I was convinced this was a Dave track when I first heard it. It's "Depecheified" enough to make it sound like Depeche Mode however and it's a track that will slowly creep up on you, reeling you in over repeated listens.
One of my favourite tracks, Scum, follows and it is a song that is destined to be the star of this year's live shows. Part Nine Inch Nails circa The Downward Spiral albeit without the intense self loathing, part modular synth fest and as angry as Depeche Mode have sounded in ages, Scum is a cracking track. Be ready to sing "Pull the triggaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah" at every show you see this year. You'll recognise Scum from the Milan press conference last year as it starts with some of the bleeps and beeps from one of the snippets played there. It soon turns into Delta Machine's My Little Universe pissed up and fighting facists however and that is a wonderful thing. After slabs of gloom, You Move arrives, very much a bedroom song and one that is rather wonderfully co-written by Dave and Martin. It's definitely a case of Dave on lyrics and Martin on music and it really works. It's a synthpop song but a distinctly experimental side to it, sounding in places like Dopplereffekt which is a real treat. Again, this song might pass you by on first listen, but it grows in stature with every play.
Dave's songs have never been my favourites on post Exciter works as for every Suffer Well or Nothing's Impossible we've had a I Want It All, Miles Away or, heaven forbid, a Hole To Feed. His songs here, the first of which, Cover Me follows Scum, are all really good, interesting tracks. Cover Me is very much a tale of two songs however. The first part is a ballad with a gorgeous chorus, but a song that tilts a bit too much towards Soulsavers, before it blossoms into a couple of minutes of pure electronic music that is a gorgeous as any Depeche have made before and will no doubt bring a tear to the eye of those who still pine for Mr Wilder. It's Depeche Mode as Kraftwerk circa Autobahn and Trans Europe Express and it elevates Cover Me from just another track to something very special indeed. If they play this live, it will be special. My nervous anticipation of Dave's contributions to albums is equalled only by my Martin bias as it his solo tracks I always look for first. His first vocal contribution is short but majestic Eternal, a black celebration of love, promising that no matter what disasters befall him ("...the radiation falls..") he will love the object of the song eternally. It's a step up, or perhaps several steps up, from recent Martin tracks too. It's short in the same way that classic Martin tracks like It Doesn't Matter Two are short, Martin sings almost entirely without the crooning vibrato that's befouled his recent efforts and, while the lyrics are not exactly new thematically, they have a focus that his recent vocal leads haven't. This is a dark, powerful lullaby and the final "My eternal loooovvvvvve" line is stunning.
Focus is a key feature in Spirit and that seems to be down to a combination of Martin having something to write about and James Ford's production. Previous albums have either meandered wholly (Sounds Of The Universe) or lost focus halfway through (Delta Machine and even Playing The Angel) but, here, we are 7 songs in already and there's no sign of any slacking or any needless filler. Dave's second contribution comes next and it keeps the momentum up nicely. Poison Heart was another of the Milan snippets ("Wooah-ohhh-ohhhhh" - you know the one) and, again, Dave's come up trumps here. Ok, the lyrics hold no real surprises, but the song has a almost soul like feel to it, admittedly soul smothered in black leather waiting for the world to end, and it works. Again, it maybe takes time to grow on you, but it will do. The album as a whole is like that really; it reveals another layer each time, like a big gloomy onion, and Poison Heart fits that bill.
We return to synthpop with So Much Love and after all the darkness, it's nice to see some light. It starts off like Broken gone haywire before settling into a fast paced track with synths clanking all over the place. It's not the best song on the album, but it's needed to break up the gloom. Those Depeche fans yearning for the old days will love this one and is definitely Spirit's purest pop moment.
The tenth track heralds the first misstep. Poorman is another slow paced, song of faithlessness and distortion that isn't really needed here. It's very much in tune with the theme of the record with its tale of a "Poorman" who is down on his luck, ruined by corporate greed, but it sounds forced. Whereas Everything Counts expressed a youthful shock at what The Man gets up too with his grabbing hands grabbing all they can, hearing the 50 somethings I referred to at the start of this review sing "Corporations get the breaks/Keeping almost everything they make" is just a bit odd. Considering that they've not done too badly for themselves over the years and that the album is out on a major label, this doesn't sit right. Musically too we're going backwards to the Hillier era rather than forwards and really, Poorman isn't needed here. It doesn't add anything and is a bit of a momentum killer.
Dave's third and final contribution No More (This Is The Last Time) revives the mood however. It's another synthpop focussed track that brings to mind the band's earlier works and, whilst it's a good song, it does sound a little unfinished to me, Something is lacking from it and whatever that is, really could have given this song an edge that would have promoted it to one of the album's standouts.
We end, uniquely for a Depeche album, on a Martin lead vocal with the wonderful Fail. It acts like a recap of what's gone on in the previous 45 minutes, reminding us that "We're hopeless" and that "Our souls are corrupt" before surprising all and sundry when Martin sings "Ohhh..we're fucked." Cover your ears Devotees. The song is great for many reasons. The music firstly is all swirling synths and scary noises, back to the experimental feel of earlier electronic passages on the album. The lyrics offer yet another crushed worldview but this time with a very dark sense of humour evident, telling us all that all the ranting and raving of the album's opening tracks has been pointless as, no matter what we do, we're in trouble and, as Martin notes with the last line of the album, "We've failed." What adds to the song's genius, and what ends the album beautifully and cleverly, is the passage of music that follows that last line, with glimmering synths offering some hope after all, like the sun coming out just before the planet inevitably explodes anyway.
Spirit will not please the entire Depeche Mode fanbase, if such a thing is even possible, nor will it necessarily win them legions of new fans. What I love about it though is the fact that it shows Depeche Mode still want to push themselves. Ahead of another stadium and arena tour, they could have easily put out another Hillier era like album, knowing that tickets would sell and people would buy the record, but they've chosen not to do that. With Spirit, the band have found a new energy and focus that is rare in bands of their size, and they have done so in their own, unique way. This albums shows that Depeche Mode are as relevant as they ever have been and, perhaps surprisingly, they find themselves making political statements ahead of any other act their size. Ok, morons like Mr Spencer might choose to misinterpret that, but what does that matter? If Spirit works, the revolution will see to the likes of him. Get on board.
Spirit by Depeche Mode is out on 17 March.
Spirit by Depeche Mode is out on 17 March.