Mute / Reprise
By: Eric Greenwood
Depeche Mode flirted with irrelevancy with 1993's overly dramatic and grunge-tinged Songs Of Faith And Devotion, but like so many colossal 1980's holdover bands with too many obsessive fans Depeche Mode talked itself into carrying on, despite singer Dave Gahan's personal turmoil and the prospect of caricature and middle age. It's arguable that Depeche Mode was even working on borrowed time with 1990's Violator, as the band's peak was well-documented for all the world to see in 1989's film and double live album, Depeche Mode 101, but Violator did, for better or worse, broaden the band's commercial appeal.
Gahan's drug problem reached comical proportions with failed suicide attempts and very public heroin arrests in the wake of 1993's Devotional tour, but it's apparently very hard to stop a machine as well oiled as Depeche Mode. A few years' hiatus resulted in the respectable but faulty Ultra album in 1997. Depeche Mode re-emerged slimmed down to a trio, losing longtime keyboardist Alan Wilder, who had been with the band since 1983's Construction Time Again, but Depeche Mode's signature sound was still intact. Martin Gore's songwriting had long since been aping itself, but he still managed to produce the band's finest single in a decade with the infectious groove of "It's No Good."
The double CD retrospective, The Singles 1986>1998, closed the book on the second half of the band's career. The lone new song, the moody, sensual "Only When I Lose Myself", showed a glimmer of life left in Gore's world-weary pen. Twenty-plus years on, Depeche Mode is still churning out the same bleak electronic pop. Exciter sounds exactly like Depeche Mode: Gahan's reverberating baritone leading the onslaught of moody synths, bluesy guitars, atmospheric strings, semi-industrial percussion, and haunting soundscapes. Gores's lyrics may stray on the embarrassing side of modern love and angst, but his melodies are not to be dismissed. No stranger to cliché, Depeche Mode wallows in the familiar world of hopelessness and abandon, but it hires some of Bjork's engineers to make it all sound up to the minute.
For me Depeche Mode's music has always worked best when it set anger against catchy pop, which songs like "Shine" attempts, if only in small doses in between cliches like "I was blind and I saw the light." "The Sweetest Condition" makes up for some of Gore's cheesier tendencies with lines like "getting lost in the folds of your skirt/there's a price that I pay for my mission" with Gahan's vocals sounding appropriately annoyed and vindictive. New Age-y schlock like "When The Body Speaks" reminds the listener that the days of songs about fifteen year old girls are long gone. Gore strews the song with hackneyed, cringe-worthy phrases like "To the soul's desires/the body listens" and "I'm just an angel driving blindly through this world." The up side is that the music with its cellos and strings and chiming guitars is gorgeous and uplifting.
"The Dead Of Night" sounds like an updated version of "Personal Jesus." Teeming with sexuality and frustration, visions of Gahan's on stage preening come to mind. It's a fun and dirty romp of a song- a catchy and upbeat diversion from much of this album's descent into dark self-loathing. The serene ballad "Freelove" wouldn't have been out of place on any of the band's post-Violator albums, but that doesn't take away from its escapist beauty. "I Feel Love" is a pulsating mixture of "I Feel You" and "It's No Good." The familiarity of Gore's melodies isn't a coincidence as he is a rabid recycler of ideas and structures. That doesn't make "I Feel Love" any less catchy, though.
Gore's cabaret-style delivery on "Breathe" gives the old 'running through the days of the week lyric trick' a try. God knows it didn't work when Sting did it on "Seven Days" and Robert Smith embarrassed himself with his version of it on "Friday I'm In Love." Gore's attempt is gossipy and tongue in cheek but still awkward and somewhat stale. "I Am You" lends credence to those arguing for Depeche Mode's relevancy in 2001 as it's easily the band's most effective song since anything off Music For The Masses. Gahan's vocals are shrouded in effects amidst clanging syncopation in the verses, and then the bottom falls out for the chorus- the effects drop off his vocals and the robust melody is staggers in while dramatic strings sweep it all away.
Exciter is a conflicted but effective album. It's as easy to dismiss it as it is to enjoy. While Depeche Mode is clearly too safe and complacent in its formulaic electronic pop, it still carries with it the ability to make dark, unsettling music. Exciter won't change anyone's predetermined opinion of Depeche Mode as a fey, indulgent slick-pop machine, but for longtime fans it isn't just a walk down memory lane.