Sounds of the Universe - Depeche Mode Album Review
2009 is the year of Depeche Mode's "Tour of the Universe", which takes place mainly on planet Earth, covering Europe, North-and-South America, Asia and pretty-much everywhere in-between, with a few exceptions (Australia, New Zealand etc).
In their 29th year as a band, is it the year that they make an album which can hold it's head up high alongside "Violator" or "Music for the Masses"? Well, in the mode (excuse the pun) of current broadcasting presentations, you'll have to wait until the end to discover... but no scrolling-down - that's cheating!
To my (not insignificant) ears, there have been two major changes sonically in DM's long history: the departure of Vince Clarke and the departure of his replacement - Alan Wilder - over twenty years later. When Wilder took the not-inconsiderable job of filling Clarke's shoes, the sound of the band departed from the more electro-pop feel of 'Just Can't Get Enough' to a darker, moodier 'Leave in Silence', but it's fair to say that the band hadn't (yet) totally moved away from their pop roots.
So, confession time: it appears that I am a fan of both these synth masters, and the post-Wilder Depeche Mode sound has never quite struck a chord (no pun) with me. The late 90s and early noughties were my Depeche Mode "wilderness years", with neither 'Ultra' nor 'Exciter' finding their way into my collection - 2005's 'Playing the Angel' was my first DM album of the new millennium, and I quite liked it.
With that preamble, you'd probably imagine that 'Sounds of the Universe' has a lot in common stylistically with 'Ultra', 'Exciter' and 'Playing the Angel', and not a lot with 'Violator' - and you'd be right.
'In Chains' opens the album, a slow-burner featuring their trademark dark synth soundscape, but although it builds, you just feel it needs to be unleased - a full-on drum kit would have gone down nicely instead of the drum machine - or even a drum machine that sounds like it's having seven bells beaten out of its pads would have done. 'Hole to Feed' follows in a similar vein, building and adding guitar and synth parts. Then we come to current single 'Wrong', which has a pretty great video. This is the most DM sounding song at this point, underpinned with nice-sounding keyboard chords, but, three tracks in, and still not a catchy riff or chorus in site. 'Fragile' is one of my favourite tracks on the album, with a slightly faster tempo than its predecessors, nicely-effected guitar parts and tasty breakdown. 'Peace' opens with a synth sound straight from 'Some Great Reward', but, come the vocal turns-out to be a choral offering accompanied by nice fat keyboard chords and pads - quite tasty - another highlight from the album.
From here on in, I'm afraid the remaining tracks just blend. In fact, it has taken about 20 listens and lots of attention to sum them up, with 'Spacewalker' sounding like an Air b-side. 'Jezebel', 'Corrupt' and an instrumental reprise of 'Wrong' see out the album.
In this current era of electro/ new wave acts such as MGMT, Empire of the Sun, Little Boots etc, you'd have to say that DM currently aren't in vogue with this current sound - which may-or-may-not be a bad thing, but I suspect it won't win them any new fans. Little Boots, interestingly, is working with the Human League's Phil Oakey on a duet.
Overall, it's not a bad album, but I would have hoped to have said; "it's a great album", and partly, it's my fault for expecting at least a fraction of the greatness of 'Violator' and partly their fault for creating an album as great as Violator in the first place!
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