The men from Basildon, England are back with their first album in three years. “Sounds of the Universe” is touted as a return to form for Depeche Mode, with the use of several analog synths and drum machines. Unfortunately, this back-to-basics technique only serves to further highlight the mediocrity that Depeche Mode has become comfortable with.
It is impossible to not have heard Depeche Mode by now, the band having been an influence for everything from hip-hop to modern bands like The Killers. As the forefront of the electro-rock scene, Depeche Mode rose to great heights, such as playing for 80,000 people at the Rose Bowl in 1988 and even inciting a riot in Los Angeles at a Wherehouse signing in 1990 after the release of its classic album “Violator.”
After a four-year break that saw lead singer Dave Gahan overdosing on drugs, Depeche Mode returned one member down but seemingly recharged after the excess of the 1990s with its album “Ultra.” However, “Ultra” was a middling release that failed to reach the creative heights of “Violator” or its previous album “Songs of Faith and Devotion,” and many pointed to the loss of Alan Wilder as the cause.
Wilder was widely reported as the one first in the studio and the last one out. His ability to polish songs until golden was why fans, even now, cry for his return; the other band members were remarkably less interested in the production side of things.
This brings us back to the present with “Sounds of the Universe,” and nowhere else is the need for Alan Wilder heard more than here. “Sounds of the Universe,” the band’s 12th studio album, is, in one word, “comfortable.” In two words, it’s “too comfortable.” The excitement is gone, and the band gives fans what they think they expect: dirty synths and dark lyrics. Best viewed as a companion album to its last venture, “Playing the Angel,” it takes everything bad about that album and makes another album out of it.
“Sounds of the Universe” matches that by failing to produce any true songs that mesh together the best of what Depeche Mode had to offer: inventive sounds, catchy hooks and great vocals. No fan could be faulted for comparing this release to the rest of its catalog. In the 1980s, especially with the band’s heralded releases “Black Celebration” and “Some Great Reward,” Depeche Mode was not content with what was and strived to find new sounds that inspired, with Alan Wilder at the forefront of the movement.
Nowadays, it seems like the songs are made to fit the synths. Comprised of 13 songs, the album sounds as if it was made of one song. Synthesizers, which provide the opportunity to make music out of anything, even hitting a pipe with a wrench, should make for interesting songs that take advantage of that ability.
Instead, Depeche Mode opted to use what feels like the pre-sets. Simply put, the band members are not even trying anymore, and they settle for what is good enough but nothing more. They do not grind the song down to find the album, instead allowing for songs like “Hole to Feed” to stagnate in a pool of odd bleeps and bloops that sound more like they came from a video game than of the imagination of an almost 30-year-old band.
The album begins with a long confluence of analog sounds that assault the ears but resemble something like trumpets heralding a return back to synths, yet the album fails to live up to its introduction. The album’s first single “Wrong” is the only memorable track, featuring a catchy hook, catchy lyrics and a strong vocal performance from Gahan. The rest of the songs blend together in mediocrity, and one would be hard-pressed to try remembering which title belongs with which song, a problem from which the entire album suffers. Depeche Mode’s fans know it could do better.