Hold a copy of Depeche Mode’s new Playing the Angel and you can just about hear the buzz emanating from it. That, my friends, is the low hum of the phrase “their best work since Violator” repeated ad infinitum. Want to know the shocking thing? Such a proclamation actually undervalues the music, draped as it is in the shimmering language and imagery of faith, sin, and redemption.It’s true Depeche Mode have changed. Songs like the gospel-tinged “John the Revelator” at long last justify the replacement of yesteryear’s clanging-metal samples with analog synth tones and glitched static. Meanwhile, Dave Gahan’s recent solo work emboldened him to take over some songwriting duties on Playing the Angel; that forced bandmate Martin Gore to bring his A-game on tracks like lead single “Precious.”
Somehow, Depeche Mode have also stayed the same. Though it all sounds new on the surface, Playing the Angel wisely blends influences from the band’s back catalog. “Macro” and “Damaged People,” for example, are downtempo numbers with a flair for the Broadway-stage-dramatic that would have made all the 101 girlies scream. Even the curious guitar-rock bombast of Songs of Faith and Devotion seems to work in album opener “A Pain That I’m Used To.”
Depeche Mode haven’t plumbed these musical and emotional depths since they were trading haircare tips with the Cure. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Playing the Angel is about as important to their legacy as “People Are People,” the video-friendly track from 1984’s Some Great Reward that blew their fan base wide open. Resurrected for listeners old and new, Depeche Mode are playing more the phoenix than the angel.