Playing The Angel
By: Eric Greenwood
Depeche Mode was my gateway band into better music when I was a kid, so I feel like I owe a lot to them. I may be a loyal fan, but I'm not deluded. And I'm not going to look at you straight-faced and tell you that Depeche Mode hasn't released its share of crap records over the years. It certainly has. Lyrically and musically the band has fallen prey to musical middle age, wherein an elusive sense of grandeur causes world famous band's to feel like they have to compete with current trends. It's akin to when a child is embarrassed when his parents try out some hip new vernacular.
The hopes of a "return to form" album keep the loyal fans on the hook, so passable mush like Ultra and Exciter don't burn any bridges. That is not to say those records didn't contain their respective moments, but on the whole the wrinkles were more apparent, even to the casual listener. And so it is without irony that I proclaim Playing the Angel to be Depeche Mode's second best record in fifteen years. Big shit, you might say. Granted, the band has only released five albums in that time span, so the competition isn't what it should be. With that said, however, the album skillfully and confidently showcases all of Martin Gore's songwriting strengths (minor lyrical faux pas notwithstanding).
Lead singer Dave Gahan only agreed to return to the band if he could write at least three songs, buoyed, somehow, by the smattering of mediocrity on his first solo album, Paper Monsters. Gore conceded, and luckily Gahan doesn't shame his bandmates (ironically, his songs actually sound more like vintage Depeche Mode's than Gore's). It's almost silly for Gahan to think one foray into songwriting compares with Gore's extensive resume of proven hits, spanning over two decades, but rock star egos are difficult to ascertain.
The first single, "Precious", dabbles in the same atmosphere as "Enjoy the Silence" off the last truly great Depeche Mode album, Violator. Gahan staves off the chest-pounding grandiosity and soulful bleating in favor of his dryer, mechanical baritone. Gore ups the beats per minute, too, distancing these tracks from the over-produced ambience of the mostly dead in the water, Exciter, with distinguishable and, at times, exciting industrial-tinged synth-pop songs.