At first, it seemed like there was a mistake. This was supposed to be the new Depeche Mode album, but it sounded like my mother’s Depeche Mode. It turns out this album was new, and although it sounds like it could have been released 30 years ago, that’s not a bad thing.
Spirit is the newest release from the British synth-pop group following their 2013 album Delta Machine. The album is the band’s 14th to date, and it picks up right where the group left off.
Opening to ominous piano chords and a dark electronic beat, “Going Backwards” sets the dark tone that continues throughout the album. As soon as lead singer Dave Gahan opens his mouth, the lyrics hint towards a political message veiled as a failing relationship.
“Where’s the Revolution” also emphasizes the band’s political message. Gahan asks the listener, “Who’s making your decisions?/ You or your religion?” and calls out the masses of “patriotic junkies.” The song is an attack of the group think and hyper-nationalism that fueled last year’s presidential election and the Brexit vote in their home country. Gahan has heard fear mongering from the highest political offices (“They manipulate and threaten/ With terror as a weapon/ Scare you till you’re stupefied/ Wear you down until you’re on their side”), and the “fake news” and “alternative facts” (“You’ve been lied to/ You’ve been fed truths”). Depeche Mode has been worn down and deeply affected by the past year, and their lyrics express the frustration that more people are not taking action.
This message comes on top of all the musical components you would expect from Depeche Mode. Synth chords flow in and out as the drum machine ticks away. Gahan’s voice echoes through the mix as the lyrics and the synths swell towards the chorus, where he’s joined by bandmates Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher, asking, “Where’s the revolution?”
The song feels as big as any of their stadium-sized anthems. The three voices bounce off each other and a heavy drum beat backs the growling bass at the bottom of the mix, leaving plenty of room for melody lines to swirl around in the upper register of the songs.
“The Worst Crime” continues Depeche Mode’s dark, political theme as Gahan invites the listener to a lynching. He presents a slew of reasons that the mob has to resort to this kind of violence (“Blame misinformation/ Misguided leaders/ Apathetic hesitation/ Uneducated readers”) over one of the slowest tempos on the album. The drums drag and the production sounds soupy and blurred, just like the crowd’s motivations.
Two of the catchiest songs on the album come back to back with “Scum” and “You Move.” The beat takes center stage, crackling with energy on “Scum” before it is washed away by distortion and Gahan sounding angry. “You Move” sounds like a song that Martin Gore would have written in the ‘80s, with lyrics about a lost love being rekindled for a night. However, the song sounds much more sinister, and unlike the ‘80s, this time the brief romance will not work out.
The time warp that brings us this electronic music anachronism has also dialed the tempo down to where it does not have the same punch as Violator or Music for the Masses. The beat is still mostly present, but the synths swell instead of pop, slowing melodies down and making them sound somber instead of hopeful.
The lyrics of “Eternal” have Gahan expressing his undying love, but it does not sound romantic like it would have one of the band’s songs from the ‘80s. The slow tempo, the rise and fall of the music, and the complete lack of drums make Gahan sound like the Phantom of the Opera yearning for love that can never be requited.
The hook for “So Much Love” sounds like what is expected in a Depeche Mode song. “There is so much love in me,” is coupled with an up-tempo drum beat and a fast synthesizer melody, but they are still too slow, and the pitch an octave too low. While “Enjoy the Silence” might sound a bit wistful, these songs are forlorn and sad. And while many of these slow burners would be fantastic through stadium speakers, just by the sheer size of the sound, they fail to impress the same way through headphones.
The lyrical standout is “Poorman”, another clearly political song, is a call to arms to workers and a statement on the economic inequality they see. The beat bounces back and forth like marching footsteps, and Gahan and company sound like they are trying to organize a strike on the factory floor, looking at the workers around them and the sorry state they are in. “Corporations get the breaks/ Keeping almost everything they make/ Tell us just how long it’s going to take/ For it to trickle down” the chorus goes, as the drums boom and the footsteps get faster and heavier.
The final song on the album,“Fail,” starts off as bleak as the rest (“Our souls are corrupt/ Our minds are messed up/ Our consciences bankrupt/ Oh we’re f**ked”), but something starts to change. The lyrics sound hopeful, and the music starts to lose some of its distortion and become clearer. It is a new day for the band, and a chance to fix some of the world’s problems.
In Spirit, Depeche Mode found their hope and vitality again in a very bleak world. That bleakness gave them the best moments on the album, but sometimes it made them sound overly downtrodden. While the second half dragged on it made me want to relisten not just to the stadium rockers from the beginning, but from albums long gone. Maybe those old CD’s will see some rotation after all.
Voice’s Choices: “Where’s the Revolution”, “Poorman”