After Alan Wilder left the band in 1995, I thought it was over for good. But they returned in 1997 with "Ultra", which to my surprise had some brilliant tracks. That special sound was gone though, and even more so on the not too exciting "Exciter", which came out in 2001 where LFO's Mark Bell unfortunately took away the energy and depth from their sound.
Then quite a while ago, the internet started to buzz with excitement over new Depeche Mode material. A new producer - Ben Hillier, who previously had worked with Blur and other guitar based bands - was brought in, and rumours told about a rekindled fire in the studio.
People in the know spoke about a return to poppier, retro-styled electronic music, and the band told us that they connected old analogue gear again. Stories on internet forums told us about how the album was perhaps one of their best ever!
And suddenly the excellent single "Precious" was upon us, and it made me interested in how the rest would sound. My hopes went sky high, and anticipation was almost as high as when they released that "Violator" album back in 1990. An exhilarating feeling for me, as I'm rarely hyped for new records these days. Finally I got hold of a copy, and played it, trembling. And with that anticipation, it could have sounded like an angel singing and still not be great. And even though all of it wasn't, most of it is.
"Playing the Angel" opens with the noise from "The Pain That I'm Used to", followed by a moody verse, and a storming chorus, but it seems like that's all there is to it. It's an OK song, but it feels a bit unfinished (although it still grows on me, I might add). Perhaps I will love it too some day. However, the next track "John the Revelator" is all I ever wanted. It is, in a way, a spiritual successor to "Personal Jesus", with its electro gospel groove, and it's going to tear down the house when played live.
Martin Gore's tracks are a more alive this time around, perhaps because he's a bit miserable these days (again), being in the middle of a divorce. It seems he was too happy and content on "Exciter"... He's darker in tone now and it's all about religion, lust, love and being an outcast, true staples of the Depeche world.
After "John the Revelator", we're treated to one of three tracks on here written by Dave Gahan. As you all know, this is the first time he has composed for Depeche Mode. Perhaps I should say Dave and his posse though, as he's brought in two other guys to help out. Two of their tracks are brilliant, while the third one "I Want It all" is quite bland. Anyway, the first one is an electro killer called "Suffer Well", and is a true favourite of the album, with its immediacy and uplifting chorus. The other great Dave track is "Nothing's Impossible", an oppressively dark affair, where Dave sings bleakly about lost love through a slightly distorted microphone. Tremendous soundscape in this one.
Martin's token ballad is "Macro", a downright lovely track where he sings like he has cotton in his mouth. It just swells and swells towards the end, and suddenly some abrasive and dirty drums kick in, which is neat. This is also a first in Depeche Mode history, as Dave actually sings backing vocals here.
Overall, each song has lots and lots of weird synth noises, and I love that such a commercially successful band once again is so playful and experimental, pushing the envelope. "Playing the Angel" is also a very electronic album - although guitar is used to great effect as well - and the album has a lot in common with the old Depeche Mode that we all adore. I could ask for a bit more weight and depth to the sound though, and Wilder era Depeche was more rhythm based.
"Playing the Angel" also has some dud tracks, so I won't give out the highest score. "Lilian" for example, is a track I know many people enjoy, but I just can't stand that deeply annoying and awkward melody: "Ooh, Liliaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan, what have you doooooooooooooooooone?"… I hope it will grow on me too. "Lilian" and "I Want It All" are the low points for me, and detract from an otherwise splendid album, which also goes out with a bang via "The Darkest Star", a magnificent and epic ending to their best album since "Songs of Faith and Devotion". Depeche Mode won't change my life this time though.