[sic] Magazine

Depeche Mode – Sounds Of The Universe

A long road, this is. After a staggering thirty years, Depeche Mode have passed beyond anything else to become a fixture: a glacial entity of relatively stable presence, that they’ve been here a while, and they might be here a while longer yet. In some ways, at peace, a sort of electronica U2 – without the trying to save the world rubbish.

Musically, this, their twelfth album, works on a base level. After all, with eleven previous ones, why should you buy another? Depeche Mode albums are predictable now: a mixture of minor key miserablism, and electronic blues built on retro-styled synth sounds. On the other hand, at least Depeche Mode are moving, and unlike many of their split-up but reformed bands-as-brands, see the worth in new material, forge forward, try new stuff. It would be easy, lazy, and commercially successful to mine a time machine, and Depeche Mode – whilst obviously aware of their past – are also interested in the future.

‘Sounds Of The Universe’, meanwhile, is not a radical move, nor the worst album Depeche Mode have made by any stretch. It is a valid, consistent album, an artistic statement of no small worth. What it doesn’t do is grab the listener by the lapels and demand attention. It is not the sound of men compelled to perform music, nor the sound of lazy millionaires humming and hawing ‘Will this do?’, but the sound of an entity that has conquered its musical sphere, and looking to the horizon for a new territory to invade. In the meantime, keyboards and synths stab and soar like eagles and guitars mass like armies on the edge. At the heart of it comes the type of lyrical and melodic gift that is both unique and predictable, a treatise and exploration of some vague malaise, an emotional black hole where no matter what is happening and no matter how secure the comforts of life are, the protagonist is searching for the answer to unhappiness – which maybe cannot be found. The 13 songs here are questions in search of answers and answers in search of questions. Time is marching on, and Depeche Mode are still looking for the key to the mystery of life.

It opens with the extended, slow raindrop of ‘In Chains’. A seven-minute unpeeled apple, it builds slowly on a single drone to unfold to a luxurious misery. A pain that I am used to. Like the rest of the album, ‘Hole To Feed’ revs its engines on the runway, and fails to ascend. The whole album is the sound of restraint, a fragile tension if you like, with the music promising much but never fully letting go. ‘Wrong’ – first single – resembles in its vocal styling 1984’s ‘Master And Servant’, but plays as if the 1984 single were played at 33, not 45. Maybe the band are getting old, or perhaps afraid of a faster tempo, but these songs of pain and suffering are not essential listening. That said, it’s ideal music for listening to late at night on your own, on the way home from a mismatched date.

Album highlight is ‘In Sympathy’ – the first song to give the drum machine anything like a hard day, build on a set of fabulous tweaks that resembles something from an early Aphex Twin album track remixed by Noel Gallagher. It’s brilliant, pacy, instantly memorable, built on a chorus that could be about anything and everything and nothing at the same time. An instant Depeche Mode classic designed to sit near the end of their live sets for the rest of their careers, I would say.


‘Jezebel’ though, is typical Mode by numbers, and sounds like a duff b-side from 1986. The band do a couple of songs like this on every album, and it acts as a mid-album pause or interregnum. In the end though, to these ears, the song is merely a four-minute interval until the next one comes along. (The song of the same name by ex-Mode man Alan Wilder’s Recoil is about a thousand times better).

Sonically and production wise, the band never miss a mark, using revamped, highly tweaked old sounds and palettes to sound both of a certain age and utterly removed from anything else in the world. In many ways, it echoes Kraftwerk albums of decades ago, sounds that still now are otherworldly, alien, and without compare, all wrapped in melodies that bear repetition without becoming irritating.

Towards the end of the record, The Kraftwerk comparisons become more obvious: ‘Spacewalker’ and ‘Perfect’ are built on the kind of mid-tempo arpeggios that typified Kraftwerks’ 1971-75 work, a spacey, distant set of melodies and rhythms were the space between the beats is as important as the beats themselves. It could be very likely that ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ is a record that relies on – and rewards – frequent repeated listening, a slow burn, a mosaic that works best appreciated from a distance over a long period of time. Only time will tell. As it stands now, ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ is fresh, original, artistically uncompromising, and neither easy, nor obvious, nor weird enough to be anything other than another very good Depeche Mode album.



For more from Mark please visit The Mark Reed website