After spending much of the ’80s and ’90s churning out one synthpop jam after another, Depeche Mode has spent much of the last 15 years exploring more subdued vistas. Save for a few notable exceptions—mainly the scorched singles of 2005’s Playing The Angel—the band opted for sparse beats and meandering electronic sprawls instead of concise pop. For fans, this could be frustrating. Martin Gore’s tart hooks always kept Depeche Mode relevant and evolving; without their influence, the band’s music often sounded stagnant.
“Heaven,” Delta Machine’s interminable first single, certainly suffers from this malaise. Despite Gore’s lovely choirboy harmonies, the song feels like electro-soul dragged through quicksand. Thankfully, the rest of the album staves off such dullness with a potent combination of moody programming, focused songwriting, and subtle velocity. That last characteristic is perhaps most crucial to Delta Machine’s intrigue: Urgency permeates the murky electronica of “Should Be Higher,” while menacing rhythmic swells propel “Alone” and punching-bag beats bolster the industrial-lite “Soft Touch/Raw Nerve.” The curveball “My Little Universe”—a burst of perforated, skittering electropop—even resembles Radiohead. Unlike much of Depeche Mode’s recent output, these songs sound like they have purpose and direction.
Much of that direction comes from frontman Dave Gahan. While he radiates his usual mix of raging sensuality and come-hither sophistication, he sounds particularly invested in Delta Machine. Gahan is alternately forceful (“Angel,” “Secret To The End”) and seductive (“Slow,” “Should Be Higher”), channeling both 1990’s Violator and 1993’s Songs Of Faith And Devotion. Not so coincidentally, other elements of these two albums also crop up on Delta Machine—from the haunted alt-goth echoes permeating “Broken” and the galloping, catchy “Soothe My Soul” to the blues guitar snaking through “Slow.” But unlike many veteran acts nodding to their own past, Depeche Mode doesn’t sound like it’s repeating itself or out of ideas. The group has merely remembered what made it great in the first place.