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Depeche Mode’s fourteenth studio album Spirit is an unflinching stare-down at a world submerged in sinister politics and social discordance. The English synth giants lay bare a masterclass of rich electronic composition that stamps their enduring relevance on a rapidly changing musical landscape.

The halcyon days of Just Can’t Get Enough and Personal Jesus are a long time ago now, but Depeche Mode have been quietly and consistently developing their craft and moving with the new technology available in the style of music they pioneered. For a band like Depeche Mode it would be easy to see new albums as little more than an excuse to go on tour, sell out some stadiums and ultimately keep the dollar machine ticking over. However, you feel as if the trio have really invested more of themselves on Spirit. It is an album that demands your attention whether you like it or not, and that does not always work in its favour.

After recording three albums with Ben Hillier, the trio assigned producer James Ford the task of assembling their widescreen vision into a concise and calculated release. The Simian Mobile Disco member has had a strong succession of acclaimed albums recently with the Arctic Monkeys, Foals and Florence and the Machine – but Spirit pushes his craft into deeper and darker territory.

On opener Going Backwards you are promptly informed that Spirit is a shadowy encounter. The track begins with brooding piano chords as the recognisable traits of Depeche Mode slowly creep into focus. Synth lines arrive like bats from a far distance and all directions while vocalist Dave Gahan bemoans a humanity drifting toward a bleak future. “We’re going backwards, armed with new technology. We’re going backwards to a caveman mentality”.

This preachy sinister sentiment sits front-and-centre for much of the opening suite of the album. The first single Where’s the Revolution expresses a yearning for people to take action against many of the dire developments across the world in modern times: “Who’s making your decisions?  You or your religion? Your government, your countries? You patriotic junkies?”’

The Worst Crime is little more tender but no less bleak. It begins with smooth, clean guitar lines before the synthetic puzzle pieces are inserted to create a more full and confronting picture. Gahan’s forlorn sigh expresses a sense of guilt and responsibility for the state of the world but does not really portray much a vision for something better: “Blame misinformation, misguided leaders, apathetic hesitation, uneducated readers. For whatever reason we now find ourselves in this. We are all charged with treason, there is no one left to hiss”.

While you can respect the courage in making such a brazen political message the focus of this album, the lyrics that convey it are just plain terrible. There is a sheer lack of imagination through most of the writing, as well as the use of trite and tired cliches, repetition and predictability – basically every sin under a writer’s sun. Principal songwriter Martin Gore can shoulder the blame for the majority of this but his tracks do at least convey a certain theme. The few tracks Dave Gahan brings to the table are generally written with a bit of assistance (Peter Gordeno, Christian Eigner) and sway from the path in style and content. While one might argue lyrics have never been the reason people listen to Depeche Mode, it renders much of the first half of this album unlistenable – which is such a let down given every other aspect on the release is done exceptionally well. 

This creative palette might be dominated by the darker hues, but it does get deeper and wider with every track. The buzz-saw swagger of Scum offers a reprieve from the political sermon but not from the vitriol. Chirpy synth patterns and overridden vocals are kicked along by Depeche Mode’s signature robotic drum beats and it is the first time on the album you find yourself nodding your head along to it all. But with Gahan spitting lines like “Scum, hey scum, What have you ever done for anyone? Hey scum, hey scum. What are you going to do when karma comes? Pull the trigger”, it is anything but dancey.

You Move feels like an overt over correction for this and the songs that came before it. After such a heavy start to the album, hearing lines like “I like the way you move tonight” feel awkwardly out of place and you find yourself listening closer hoping to find some kind of deeper subtext that unfortunately isn’t there. Cover Me is more effective in bringing you back to the Depeche Mode you know and love. Synth lines wash back and forth while the arpeggiators pull the arrangement along like a rusty train through the cloudy countryside.

Eternal succeeds in blending emotive themes with complex arrangements and by Poison Heart it seems the album has won you over. The slap-back guitar, boomy bass drum and glistening melodies make it the most accessible track on the album and the only one you could imagine Johnny Cash performing a cover of. This is not necessarily the measure of all success but it does feel like a liberating release from the brooding overtones of much that has come before. So Much Love follows suit with a driving rhythm and the best guitar riffs on the release. There are moments in the song that you find yourself pondering what kind of music would have been created if Ian Curtis had lived and somehow gone on to front New Order circa 1990. The driving beats feel like they are being pulled underwater at times as the other instruments are given their chance to shine.

Unfortunately Poorman marks a return to Gore’s socio-political diatribe, lamenting “Corporations get the breaks, keeping everything they ever make. When will it trickle down?” It’s not a compelling economic statement (you wouldn’t throw Gore into the ring with with Milton Friedman) so it’s a good thing the music is incredible. The arpeggiators are heavily panned bouncing left and right like ping-pong balls while the synth tones swell in and out like a robot’s beating heart.

Overall the production on this album is outstanding as Depeche Mode draw on a vast array of tones and textures and knit them together into something truly their own. They construct and deconstruct arrangements with poise and patience reflecting their vast experience in a field of music they were instrumental in introducing to us all. Spirit is mostly a bleak expression of bewilderment at the state of the world. In parts it feels like that pang in your guts when your parents are disappointed in you, in others it feels like the bass drum hitting you in the same place making you want to sad-dance your way into the harrowing oblivion.

This is an ambitious and accomplished effort from a band that still matters and evidently has a lot left to give. Spirit could have been one of the best albums of 2017 but the lyrics sound like they were lifted from an angst-ridden year-ten student’s exercise book. It really is a shame given most of Depeche Mode’s audience, and the band themselves are certainly old enough now to know better.


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