Depeche Mode: Exciter

As much a victim as a beneficiary of '80s nostalgia, Depeche Mode may never live down its Eurotrash synth-pop image, even as its music grows in scope and sophistication. Now two decades into a surprisingly consistent career, the band still attracts the kind of snide criticism often levied against novelty acts, despite its clear-cut status as an influential electronic-music pioneer. Even though Depeche Mode didn't get much credit, let alone respect for its place in the pantheon, the group weathered on throughout the '90s, surmounting lineup changes and personal problems with impressive dedication and savvy decisions. When it comes to making records, Depeche Mode doesn't appear eager to reinvent itself, but it has kept itself fresh and fashionable by making smart choices in collaborators. Following a few albums with Flood and a disc with Tim Simenon of Bomb The Bass, Depeche Mode turned to Mark Bell—formerly of techno trendsetter LFO, and most recently Björk's producer of choice—for the new Exciter. The choice works well, as Bell's subtle, inventive knob-twiddling pairs perfectly with Martin Gore's new batch of somber, subdued songs. Gore's guitar has become more integral, lending songs like the first single, "Dream On," and "The Sweetest Condition" an organic base for Bell's muted and mutating beats. David Gahan croons like Bono would if Bono took himself half as seriously as some critics insist, and while Gore's lyrics often match the U2 singer's for sheer banality, his singing remains vital to Depeche Mode's sound. Gahan's weary voice buoys atmospheric dirges like "Shine," "Freelove," and "When The Body Speaks," while he helps "I Feel Loved" (one of the few up-tempo numbers) attain the techno-anthem status it deserves. In a sense, Exciter's thin, Goth-tinged songs mark a return to form for Depeche Mode, matching its gloomy '80s work minor chord for minor chord, while somehow still sounding firmly contemporary. That's all any long-running band can hope for: progress, but not at the expense of personality.

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