Playing The Angel
REVIEW BY: Michael R. Smith
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/13/2009
Pain and suffering in various tempos. That is the quotation found on the butt-ugly sleeve of Depeche Mode’s eleventh studio album, Playing The Angel. The first track, the abrasive “A Pain That I’m Used To,” sets the tone for gloomy things to come. Decidedly more danceable and upbeat than the previous stylistic detour that was Exciter, this album brings back the beat and trancey vibe DM has become known for.
For a band now into its third decade, you would think Depeche Mode would start to lose some steam. And for the most part, Depeche Mode does what they do best on Playing The Angel, even garnering a pair of #1 club play hits in the process (“Suffer Well” and “Precious”). And when it comes to making music videos, nobody can really hold a candle to this trio. The first five tracks are all vintage Mode, but after that is where it all starts to sound the same. So much for Ben Hillier being a worthy producer.
The majority of the blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of chief songwriter Martin Gore. His lyrics this time around place more emphasis on a rhyming scheme than attempting even remotely to make sense. The worst example of this is “Macro,” which is so spare that it reads like amateurish haiku. Lead singer Dave Gahan throws his own hat into the ring in writing the words to three tunes on Angel, including the aforementioned “Suffer Well,” which leads me to believe Martin Gore just might have some competition on his hands in the future. If Gahan’s key track “I Want It All” piques your curiosity, then you’ll really be bowled over by his solo work.
Unfortunately, the Depeche Mode we have found this decade is nowhere nearly as interesting or creatively dynamic as they were during their heyday with such topnotch sets as 1990’s Violator or 1997’s Ultra. To put it bluntly, they have struggled since then. Instead of continuing to make their mark on alternative radio, Depeche Mode has been relegated to the dance bin. The irony is that dance music has always favored younger audiences, and it is hard to conceive teenagers grooving to anything on Playing The Angel (unless their hip parents turned them on to Depeche Mode’s music).
No longer interested in publicizing new releases by the Mode, disloyal Warner Brothers decided to dump them from their roster when this album didn’t quite live up to their expectations. Lucky for them, Capitol was ready and waiting with open arms for this band that has earned its pioneer status as one of the premier electronic acts still working today. Whether they have anything left in the tank once 2010 rolls around remains to be seen, however. There’s just enough to whet the appetite for Depeche Mode fans on Playing The Angel, despite having nothing stylistically new under their black sun to report. Perhaps Playing It Safe would have been a more fitting title.