Playing The Angel

Depeche Mode

Reprise, 2005

REVIEW BY: Vish Iyer


The kind of blind affection that Playing The Angel is being received with has got to do with the fact that this album comes after Depeche Mode's four-year absence and a lot of uncertainties regarding the band's stability. This affection is the kind that stems from the feeling of gratitude that the band has released an album at all, even if it's not a great one.

So is this love warranted? Not all of it. After the unanimously unpopular minimalist-sounding Exciter, the follow up record was "hyped" to be DM's return to the darker and brawnier sound. Though with Angel the band has made an attempt to resurrect the bleakness of its pre-Exciter glory-days, it doesn't quite reach the desired results, and the album sounds choppy at times. A part of the reason for this is that the band has still not gotten itself fully out of Exciter mode.

Exciter was DM's experimentation with minimalism, a new venture for the band that was a hit-and-miss in some ways. Still, the album was consistent in its laid-back style, which gave it a distinct mood and a sense of uniqueness, though it did end up sounding incomplete. However, with Playing The Angel, DM tries to fight this, and this struggle against the group's natural tendency results in an album that lacks the cohesiveness of most of their other records.

A case in point is the opening track, "A Pain That I'm Used To." This track blasts off at the very go with a harrowing guitar riff matching the distraught meaty feel of Ultra's "Barrel Of A Gun." But, soon after the riff leads to the first verse, the song transforms into a bareness that cancels out the grandiose intro completely, making the track far less potent than it ought to have been. Also, after its mere two verses and two choruses, this cut fails to develop further, and ends unexpectedly for lack of ideas.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The same is the case with "John The Revelator" and "Suffer Well," which are reminiscent of the ones from the less-industrial Violator days, and are absolutely brilliant. But they lack further development of ideas and end too early, sounding incomplete.

However, the battles in the fight to move against the irresistible forces of Exciter are won gloriously on "The Sinner In Me," "Precious," "I Want It All," "Nothing's Impossible," and "Lillian." The band re-invents the sound of Violator on these numbers with help from the lessons learned in the fine art of "industrial" bleakness from Songs Of Faith And Devotion and Ultra, and does an amazing job at it. "The Sinner In Me" and "Nothing's Impossible" tend towards the heavier sound of Faith and Ultra, "Precious" and "Lillian" resemble the straight-ahead poignant-pop classiness of "Enjoy The Silence," and "I Want It All" reflects the moody arousing effect of "Waiting For The Night."

Though Angel seems to be musically deficient in places, the songwriting, as always, is near perfect. Martin Gore's lyrical ability, even after 25 years, is still as sharp and impacting as ever. Gore's imaginative interpretation of pain is still as fired up, and so is his clever wordplay, something which has always been a unique feature of his songs.

Angel marks the debut of Dave Gahan as a song-writer with DM. Gahan has put to use the lessons learned in song-writing from his solo effort, and has written three tracks -- "Suffer Well, "Nothing's Impossible" and "I Want It All" -- on Angel. Gahan's words are as intelligent as Gore's, and his cuts blend in perfectly with Gore's, which is saying a lot about his lyrical ability.

But unlike Gore's wonderful singing appearances on other DM records, the Gore-sung songs on Angel are dismal. "Macro" and "Damaged People" are not only the album's weakest, but also the band's. These oddly-composed cuts on Angel clearly stand out as the group's worst in years.

Angel is not a classic like the other Depeche Mode records. However, it is a decent comeback from a difficult phase of Exciter's sloppy experimentation. Though Angel may be a bit sketchy, it is nevertheless a solid effort. But since the band has set such high expectations with its other albums, it is sometimes impossible for it to meet these expectations. After all, being one of the greatest bands in the history of contemporary music does come with its pitfalls.

Rating: B

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© 2005 Vish Iyer and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Reprise, and is used for informational purposes only.