Depeche Mode :: Playing the Angel (Mute/Sire, CD/DVD)

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(06.05.06) Playing the Angel is Depeche Mode’s 11th album (aside from compilation and live albums) and only their 3rd since the departure of musical supremo Alan Wilder in 1995. Having previously employed the production talents of Tim Simenon for 1997’s Ultra and Mark Bell (LFO) for 2001’s Exciter, the band chose Ben Hillier to fill what would have been Wilder’s role for this album. Hillier has a lengthy list of production credits and has worked in various capacities for the likes of The Doves, Blur, Erasure, Curve and Travis.

Following the generally underrated Ultra album and lacklustre Exciter, the potential output of Hillier’s involvement remained somewhat of a mystery when the announcement was made. After releasing one of their weakest albums to date in the form of Exciter, Playing the Angel would either be a return to form or another disappointment for many of their fans.

Of the three post-Wilder albums, Playing the Angel is the most stripped down of the three and it benefits all the more for it. After Dave Gahan (the band’s vocalist) went public about wanting to contribute his songwriting skills to the album, three of his tracks – “Suffer Well,” “Nothing’s Impossible” and “I Want It All” – were added to the tracklist alongside the usual series of Martin Gore penned material. Each track bears all the usual Depeche Mode hallmarks and covers their typical subject matter; sex, despair, rejection, religion and seduction. What makes each album distinctly Depeche Mode are songwriter, musician and vocalist Gore’s lyrics and Gahan’s distinctive voice.

Opening with an attention grabbing siren reminiscent of Exciter‘s “The Dead of Night,” the driving mechanical “A Pain That I’m Used To” opens in fittingly upbeat Mode style. Gahan’s voice sounds better than ever and it’s an energetic start with a dark edge. “John the Revelator,” one of the strongest tracks on the album, tackles typical religious subject matter with lines that range from the wonderful “seven lies multiplied by seven, multiplied by seven again” to the questionable “John the Revelator, put him in an elevator.” Add to this a driving beat and the sing-along call response of “Who’s that shouting? John the Revelator!” and you have a winning formula and fan favourite. It may be surprising to some but Gahan contributes some strong tracks; “Suffer Well” is a slower track but tells a story which comes to life and gains some revealing context with the accompanying video. Of his other tracks, “I Want It All” is a ballad and probably the weakest of his tracks while “Nothing’s Impossible” is another fan favourite featuring strong lyrics, perfect delivery and an unusual sound for Depeche Mode. Picking up where “A Pain That I’m Used To” (the second single from the album) leaves off, “Precious” (the first single) continues the theme with typical Depeche Mode electronics and Gore’s fuzzy guitar drones.

One of the other regular features of every Depeche Mode album, and a high point for fans of his unique vocal stylings, are Gore’s own vocal contributions. Sadly, both his tracks – “Damaged People” and “Macro” – are low points on Playing the Angel. “Macro” could easily be from Gore’s less than stellar Counterfeit album and while “Damaged People” is stylistically similar, it has more of a characteristic Depeche Mode feel to it. “Lilian” is also a fan favourite but features weak lyrics – “precious jewels weren’t found in schools where I came from” for example – and Gahan delivering his lines without his usual conviction, almost as though he is unsure of how to sing them. Even Gore doesn’t sound on the best of form. Closing the album in suitably downbeat fashion is “The Darkest Star,” a dramatic slow song with a dark mood, impassioned lyrics and a healthy dose of feeling from Gahan.

If you are lucky enough to get hold of the limited edition version of the album you will also be treated to a bonus DVD disc. The disc contains a short “Making of” film, a photo gallery and the 5.1 surround and PCM stereo versions of the album for your listening pleasure. Along with this comes the “Precious” video which is set on a computer generated cruise liner with all manner of mechanised cogs and other special effects producing a nice visual accompaniment to the first single. The best bonus on the DVD disc however is the inclusion of a re-recorded “bare version” of “Clean” from 1990’s highly acclaimed Violator album. Recorded in the studio, most likely during the Playing the Angel sessions, this version of “Clean” is essentially a much stripped down version with Gahan’s vocals accompanied by Gore’s guitar. Some of their other older tracks have also been given this treatment, turning up on singles or distributed free through their web distribution system known as the “DM Receiver.”

Before the release of Playing the Angel, nobody was sure what Depeche Mode would do or sound like next. This album has put those fears to rest and proved that the band can still make great music. The tour that accompanies the album is still running and is selling out across the world. Playing the Angel is a true return to form and after 25 years in the music business, their legions of fans still can’t get enough.

Playing the Angel is out now on Sire/Mute. (Buy it at Amazon.com)

  • Sire / Mute
  • Depeche Mode
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