Depeche Mode: Delta Machine

As a big Depeche Mode fan it is difficult to remain objective about an album that I have been waiting for since last year, but I will endeavour to do so.

With bands that have been around for a long time there is a tendency for each new release to be treated with some disdain in comparison to past glories, and let’s face it Depeche Mode are no exception and have seen better days. But in my opinion that’s no reason to stop making music and I think the world would be a much emptier place without new music from old bands. The trick is for these bands to come up with something new sounding or at least something that sounds like a development in a favoured direction for old and new fans alike.

In my mind this album represents the culmination of a development in DM’s sonic landscape which has been on-going since Ben Hillier took over the job of production… Hillier has been criticised for poor separation of sonic elements in production and bland ‘flat’ production; the re-introduction of Flood literally into the mix means that Delta Machine is by far the best sounding album in terms of the presentation of the content that Hillier has produced.

With this album Depeche Mode have a full grasp on, and an appreciation of, what’s worked for them in the past. The soundscape is a mix of Songs of Faith and Devotion and Violator, and yet does hark back to Playing the Angel. Lyrically the collaboration of Gahan and Kurt Uneala on a few of the tracks alongside Gore’s material means it is a lot more interesting than Sounds of the Universe. Electronic blips and blabs and most of the guitar chords seem to be self-sampled from the whole back catalogue and Gore’s recent project with Vince Clark also seems to have had an influence in places.

Gahan’s vocals are the best I have heard for a long time with only a few odd slurs and skips in delivery which seem more intended affectations than mistakes. Gore only gets one lead vocal outing on the album ‘proper’ with the dark dark song The Child Inside and is out-classed by Gahan’s efforts.

There are 11 cracking songs on the standard album (15 on the deluxe edition – sadly no video on this one), and it feels to me that a real effort has been put into making this record the best it possibly could be. If you are looking for new stuff you could say that there’s more bass, more ‘electronica’, less guitar, more blues, more sleaze, more grunge, but it has all been done before in one track or another on previous albums. What’s important to recognise here is that they have done the business for the whole album and there are no really weak tracks on the standard release (apart from one I’m not struck on – see below) – this is probably why people are griping about the lack of a killer single – but did they not hear Heaven? Besides Depeche Mode have said themselves in the past that they thought it was a mistake to spend too much time in the production of tracks ear-marked early on as singles to the detriment of the remaining tracks on an album.

Yes the album does have a slow tempo for most of the time with the exceptions of the immediately catchy sing-a-long Soothe My Soul and Soft Touch/ Raw Nerve, but then I can’t see DM ever going back to producing an out and out dance album – they are an electronic rock group now, and it’s nowhere near as dull as the ridiculously named Exciter. The glory days of Black Celebration, Music for the Masses and Violator are long gone, but the Basildon Boys aren’t. This is a really satisfying album and deserves most of the hype it has had.

I will now try and offer up some observations on each track without regurgitating what other reviewers have written. Amazon is a great place to get a balanced view of the album by the way – most people have given it 4 or 5 stars and then there’s a very very small minority who are acting like DM have been filmed on a webcam putting a cat in a bin!

Welcome to my World is DM’s down-tempo equivalent of ‘Let me Entertain You’ by Queen or Robbie Williams. It builds with synth strings, multi-layered vocals and implores you to take then band seriously for the next fifty minutes. It is a great opener to the album and has some great imagery of comfort and love in the lyrics alongside despair and sin. Tempting as it might have been they don’t go way overboard on the production of the main chorus and yet it still delivers a punch.

Angel was available on YouTube quite some time ago and was the only track apart from the single Heaven I ‘previewed’ prior to the album release. Gahan is in gospel preacher mode and sings with great blues and grit in his voice while sporadically breaking into a wilting lament of a lyrical hookline. The tempo of the track shifts about two minutes in as the story of rapture progresses and the weird guitar riffs and squirting samples gain more insistent weight in the mix with excellent stereo panning courtesy of Flood. After another lament the track slows down at the end. I like to think that there is a version of this track that just keeps going in terms of tempo and ends up like a dance track. We’ll see.

Heaven is an out and out religiously inspired song without mentioning a god, although perhaps it could be interpreted as a short ditty on love? The guitar riff carrying the chorus is brilliantly catchy and it’s no surprise that Songs of Faith and Devotion got talked about a lot when this track was released ahead of the album. I love the ending where just the drums are left and then stop like a heartbeat. Not the most original way to end a song, but still effective.

Secret to the End has some of Gahan’s best vocals on the album – dark and brooding. God does get a capitalised mention in the lyrics and the ‘book of love’ which could be the Bible or could just be a throwback to the sentiment explored in Love in Itself. The song is about the death of a relationship and the assignment of blame. The amount of singing from Gore in the background limits the amount of musical elements in this song but there are still some great guitar loops and crunchy bass blobs.

My Little Universe builds up musically with blips and blaps so that it is minimal at the start and then full of noises by the end. As mentioned earlier, this is as close to Gore’s collaboration with Vince Clarke as any tracks on this album get. It is essentially a song about head-space and protection of the ego and/or meditation and/or being in a coma or a growing spiritual enlightenment. It is a very intriguing lyric and I love the massive techno noises that permeate the end of the mix building to a satisfying gut pounding crescendo which will have remixers slobbering over the rights to tinker with this track in the future.

Slow is by far the bluesiest, grubbiest and sleaziest song on the album. The lyrics implore Gahan’s lover to go as slow as possible and make the most of the time together while they’re shagging. Gore’s voice pops in now and again and is used more like an instrument than a backing vocal. Some of the bassy guitar reverbed ‘crunches’ towards the end of the track are almost as dirty as the thoughts intimated in the lyrics. It’s their version of That’s the way (I like it) I guess.

Broken would not be out of place on Music for the Masses or Black Celebration for that matter. The repetitive metallic twangs and reverbed electronic echoing hollow sounds are all very retro and there is a line ‘words long forgotten, forgotten somehow’ echoes the line ‘words once spoken don’t mean a lot now’ from Lie to Me. Gahan’s vocal demonstrates his range in the bass notes and the Gore/Gahan vocal combo works well. There are lots of guitar towards the end with the last ten seconds or so sounding something like Placebo.

The Child Inside is the only Martin Gore lead vocal on the standard album and is by far the most ‘depressed mood’ track in the collection with some very stark imagery about someone murdering the child ‘inside their heart’. Musically it is very Violator-esque – quite minimalist like Waiting for the Night. It is probably a track that will end up getting skipped over after repeated plays of the album.

Soft Touch/Raw Nerve is one of the few up-tempo tracks on the album and is a little reminiscent of a Question of Time albeit with much simpler lyrics. If I was to draw any comparisons it sounds little like early Jesus Jones, no really. It seems to be a quick song about putting one’s foot in it and is devoid of any religious references for once. It is one of two songs to have a ‘false end’, the other being Goodbye, in this case I think they maybe thought it was too short without it.

Should be Higher, features some high notes from Mr Gahan which he will struggle to do on the forthcoming tour and reminded me a little of Ewan Mcgregor ‘reaching’ for notes in the film Moulin Rouge. Towards the end an electronic percussive noise that wouldn’t be out of place on a Missy Elliot track creeps in alongside the crunchy bassline and Construction Time Again era snap crackles and pops. The lyric is the usual mix of comparing love to religion and seeking some form of elevation in a slightly less rocky way than the U2 single of the same name.

Alone continues with the religious imagery and seems to be about spelling out regret over not being able to help a hopeless case. The hopeless case may be the singer himself. The music is rolling percussive bass-led stuff with some synth strings (a little like William Orbit at times) and Gore supports with backing vocals. Again there are almost-samples of their much earlier work.

Soothe my Soul is an up-tempo almost Personal Jesus style bluesy stomper with Gahan in his sexual predator mode with some sonic references back to Music for the Masses. It conjures an odd Burlesque image of Gahan dancing around on stage waggling his ass. I said it was odd. ‘I’m coming for you like a junky…’ Gahan sings. This is basically another song about sex; Simple and very catchy.

The bassline of Goodbye is guitar led and would not have sounded out of place on Songs of Faith and Devotion. The lyrics are almost gospel and multi-tracked in places with Gore supporting Gahan once more with backing vocals. In the lyrics the ‘goodbye’ is issued to pain in another religious/love mix and hopefully isn’t issued to their fans, some of whom, like me, have been with them for 33 years. The closing refrains for some reason remind me a bit of the Beatles Hello, Goodbye – perhaps only because we get the ‘Hello’ with Welcome to my World – on listening to the Beatles track they sing a corruption of the world ‘hello’ rather than goodbye. Perhaps I’m just cracking up? Nope – I just had the wrong song. The Beatles ‘Here Comes the Sun’ was what was in my subconscious – ‘sun, sun, sun here it comes…’

Long Time Lie is the first of the four extra tracks on the deluxe edition of the album. It is slow tempo and rather minimalist featuring some noises reminiscent of It’s Called a Heart with sweeping waves of synth noise. Lyrically it seems to be observations on someone’s abusive relationship. Gahan leads, Gore backs, and I get bored and skip the track. I can understand why this one was judged unfit for the album ‘proper’.

Happens all the Time is a lot more bass-led than Long Time Lie, is more atmospheric, has better vocals and a more complex musical arrangement. Lyrically it seems to be a comment on the world we live in and life in general – trying not to have regrets over things in the past and making the most of your time on Earth.

Always is simple love song with typically quirky Gore-written lyrics and is a second vocal trip out for Gore. The music at times, between lilting synth strings, sounds like a bunch of robots talking to each other over the top of a chugging bassline. Gore’s vocals are treated so they sound quite metallic on the verse but not the chorus. This track is almost good enough to be on the album ‘proper’, but I am not overly taken with the treatment of the vocal track for the verses. I don’t get it.

All That’s Mine is the last of the extra tracks and sounds like it could have fitted alongside Sea of Sin and Happiest Girl in a post-Violator EP. It features some more good singing from Davey boy with back-up vocals from Gore. Ignoring the grungy synths for some bizarre reason it makes me think of A-Ha’s Dream Myself Alive from their Hunting High and Low album.

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