Saturday, August 15, 2009

Seductive shadows

Depeche Mode
Sounds of the Universe
Score: 8

Ever since 1993, Depeche Mode have been on the four-year plan when it comes to albums, and with Sounds of the Universe, it feels like they've completed a grand circle, returning to the days of Violator. Sleek, lithe and subtle, the album dispenses with the louder, more-spacious sound of 2005's Playing the Angel and indulges in synthesizers and programming. The atmosphere is shadowy and velveteen, a seductive combination that invites you to come in, sit down and soak up the secrets. Just be careful not to spill your own.

You see, for every choice, there is a consequence. The man in the opening song, "In Chains," met someone. Now he's obsessed. "The way you move / has left me burning," Dave Gahan sings. "I know you know what you're doing to me / I know my hands will never be free / I know what it's like to be / in chains." As a cymbal simulates the rhythmic cracking of whip, his vocals twist and writhe, but never in agony. Because this is an S&M song. Depeche Mode have many. They may as well control the traffic lights at the intersection of lust and power. By the album's end, in fact, Gahan is voicing the opposite side. "I could corrupt you / in a heartbeat," he boasts to a temptress over the squirmy synth line. One could imagine her taunting response and his growling rebuttal: Her: "Is that a threat?" Him: "No, it's a promise."

Gahan, of course, would never use such an overheated cliche, nor would Martin Gore, the band's chief songwriter. Both are in fine form on Sounds of the Universe, crafting melodies that massage and stimulate. The guitars are used mainly as accents; brief and often sheathed in wah-wah, they never call undue attention to themselves. The percussion moves with padded paws. And the lyrics flourish in this environment.

"Wrong," which is impressive even bare on the page, repeats that title like a rueful head shaking back and forth, as Gahan details a litany of bad choices, including, "I was marching to the wrong drum / with the wrong scum / pissing out the wrong energy." The line "The wrong questions / with the wrong replies" is befitting of a poem by Anne Sexton, "Wanting to Die," specifically these lines: "But suicides have a special language. / Like carpenters, they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build." Sexton, who might've been a Depeche Mode fan if she'd been born 40 years later, ending up taking her life. Gahan himself nearly died by his own hand in 1995, and the theme of suicide has come up in the band's work, notably in the hit "Blasphemous Rumours," wherein a 16-year-old girl slashes her wrists but survives. (The same method as Gahan, coincidentally.)

Moody creepers "Little Soul" and "Jezebel" are like a midnight rendezvous in the spirit of "Violator," the synths a jet-black sheen. "Jezebel" is a bit flowery: It's hard to imagine a place today where people would refer to anyone as a "Jezebel"; plus, it's closely followed by the phrase "wanton acts of sin." But why not err on the bookish side? Settings are harder to recognize in darkness anyway. Gore's intimate tenor handles "Jezebel," another tale of irresistible attraction. In this one, her suitor believes he knows how she really feels, despite people saying she'll never care for him. What's the consequence of his choice? The last line of the song is "Jezebel!" But it is encased in robotic processing, warping it and making it unclear whether it's the suitor's realization or just the scornful cries of the onlookers.

In other words, it's a cliffhanger.

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