There’s a nostalgic comfort to be found in the ear-shredding buzz-saw alarm that revs up Depeche Mode’s 12th studio album. It’s a reminder that after 25 years, the band can still — with a few hundred meticulous knob twirls and a sprinkling of computer dust — craft the sort of industrial-Goth sounds that dial in to the fragile psyche of our inner self-loathing 13-year-old. Though Depeche Mode began as new-wave dance tarts and endured an early-’90s apex (and near implosion) as stadium-size alterna-gods, they now seem to be quietly settling into a role as the elder statesmen of electronic angst.
Given the commercial success of young synth-heavy bands like the Killers, it seems like a perfect time for a splashy Depeche Mode comeback. (Their last two albums, 1997’s Ultra and 2001’s Exciter, failed to ultra-excite anyone beyond hardcore fans, though the latter’s gently soulful suite of ditties deserves another spin.) And Playing the Angel turns out to be their most self-assured and accessible release in over a decade, with highs not heard since the gloomy heyday of 1990’s Violator. But now the bad news: The album also hits a few spirit-sapping lows, tripping up on sluggish, self-indulgent ballads that prevent the band from truly reclaiming peak form.
But darn it, they come mighty close at times. If only all of the songs oozed pretty pain like the first single ”Precious,” an exquisitely understated ode to busted love. It’s easily their most memorable track since Violator’s sweeping dance hit ”Enjoy the Silence.” Hearing vulnerable lead singer Dave Gahan’s detached lament over the subtly busy midtempo beat produces a musical moment that might actually appeal to both tortured teens and adults — proving it is possible for dance acts to age gracefully. (And even grow — for the first time in the group’s history, Gahan has contributed a few songs of his own, and the resulting three tracks are, surprisingly, among the album’s strongest.)
While such elegant moping is engrossing throughout the album’s first five songs (the rousing electro-gospel celebration ”John the Revelator” and the dark techno bounce of ”Suffer Well” evoke their hip-shaking ‘87-‘90 golden era without stooping to self-derivation), the my-soul-is-corrupt-so-won’t-you-redeem-me lyrical script and melodramatic compositions sometimes drag after the first half. Particularly egregious are a pair of tunes (”Macrovision” and ”Damaged People”) sung by Martin Gore, the band’s main songwriter. Depeche fans have come to expect a few Gore-fronted ballads on every album, and his sensitive vocals usually act as a foil to Gahan’s rough-hewn croon. But on these offending tunes, ornate arrangements and trembling vibrato ramblings about ”depraved souls” and the ”whispering cosmos” finally feel like one pretentious sin too many.
But even Angel’s more plodding numbers provide some great moments, as the music occasionally veers into arresting extended codas that easily dwarf the preceding tunes. That actually makes sense in the larger picture: It wouldn’t be Depeche Mode if they didn’t sometimes go astray and then find redemption, whether it’s within a five-minute pop song, a quarter-century career, or a flawed comeback disc that still manages to inflict some satisfying pain.