Wednesday, 19 October 2005

Review: Playing The Angel

Depeche Mode have a new album out (meaning they now have a 24-year-old career). Bands once mocked now have a quarter of a century under their belts, and serious discographies and histories worth considering.

The new Depeche Mode album, Playing The Angel, is not as good as Violator or Music for the Masses, which arguably have the key songs, and are in fact from the golden middle period (after the early candy-synth and before the portentous slow decline into irrelevance) - but it is a work that coldly, and strongly, references the whole back catalogue with sinister wit.

Depeche Mode are loved by some, and regarded as faintly silly by most others, and for the same reasons: their merger of S&M, biblical allusion, electronic music and ultra-louche posturing (where all behaviour is deontologically challenged) is a brew not all may consume lightly.

I have always considered them natural heirs to the Byronic tradition: there is nothing Byron (or the idea of Byron) didn't do they have done, which includes the opiates and the orgies - with a curious C.S. Lewis Screwtape Letters diabolism. In fact, it is surprising they have never titled an album Screwtape - it would be be the summation of their summa psychopathologica - that is, they take the path of Judas, and celebrate it. They combine Poe and the Pope.

The best song on the new album is undoubtedly "John The Revelator" - a clear homage to their own "Personal Jesus" - which is about as joyous a misuse of American Gospel Born Again rhetoric and music as can be imagined - it is as if a Mormon choir joined Nine Inch Nails on tour and really got into it. This is what Depeche Mode do better than anyone else - desecrate the transcendental like some sort of coy William Empson about to be sent down for having a condom in his digs. That is, if they are of the devil's party, it isn't for want of trying to get into Magdalene first.

The rest of the album sags under the weight of too many dreamy ballads and less than impressive forays into their slow stuff. But it has three other highlights: "I Want It All"; "Lilian" and "Suffer Well" - which basically sum all their tropes up, lyrically and musically, but with valedictory panache, at least. Of these, "Lilian" is the most refreshing - it is rare for a Depeche Mode song to actually celebrate an actual person as subject (if even a fictional one) - too often their love objects are simply objects, and love isn't the right word to use either.

One final note: the James Bond franchise has overlooked DM for their theme song as often as the Tories have Ken Clarke - and this should stop. No other contemporary British band combines European sophistication, real menace, and kitsch as well as they.
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