“We’re fucked,” sings Martin Gore on ‘Fail’, the final track on the new Depeche Mode album ‘Spirit’. It’s not exactly the uplifting, elegiac ending to an album that one is badly in need of by the end of ‘Spirit’, but as a summary of the prevailing mood, that lyric sums it up perfectly.
This is not an album to listen to if you are remotely worried about the state of the world right now. Lead single ‘Where's The Revolution?’ signalled this, but it didn't quite prepare you for just how bleak a picture Depeche Mode were planning to paint. From the off, with the edgy, slow-building opener ‘Backwards’ – with its trademark bass-heavy rhythms and edgy, nagging melody befitting of a classic Depeche Mode set piece – it's clear that ‘Spirit’ is going to be a challenging listen.
And so you get lyrics dealing with how mankind is ignoring the warning signs, regressing instead of progressing, destroying the planet via undeniable satellite evidence that some would no doubt decry as ‘fake news’, reminds us painfully of how bad race intolerance got with a story about a public lynching, takes a swipe at politicians and public figures with ‘Scum’ and bemoans the devious tactics of major corporations. It's bold, direct and in most cases perfectly reflective of public opinion, even if call-to-arms lyrics like “it’s time to pull the trigger” (‘Scum’) are probably not exactly helpful with a Republican in power.
Fortunately, it's not all doom and gloom. Some of ‘Spirit’ manages to avoid politics or societal damage completely. ‘Move’ nods back to the sleek, sexy grooves of ‘It’s No Good’ (used as the unlikely music to an unlikely pole-dancing scene in Friends, fact fans) with a slightly off-kilter rhythm. ‘Cover Me’ is one of those redemptive songs that Depeche Mode are so good at, with that slow climb out of misery toward some sort of anguished optimism. The track includes an extended analogue middle section that feels like the coda from ‘Violator’s ‘Clean’ expanded into a full song. It's reverential, but fresh at the same time. Some of this can be attributed to producer James Ford from Simian Mobile Disco, who manages to encourage a certain wonkiness and roughness to the modular synth sections where these have felt a little too formulaic on recent Depeche Mode albums.
Politics aside, it is easy to approach ‘Spirit’ as nothing especially new in the almost forty year legacy of this band – especially when tracks like ‘Eternity’ and ‘So Much Love’ feel like a band covering themselves. But listen closely and something has altered; the bluesiness that seemed to dominate recent records is here transformed into a much more soulful sound, with Martin Gore’s guitar largely absent and Dave Gahan’s frontman swagger played down ever-so-slightly. One of the most interesting songs here, ‘No More’, sounds like a late 80s pop song filtered through a distinctly Depeche lens, while ‘Poison Heart’ sounds like a Motown anthem pushed through cavernous distortion. These are tender, if bittersweet moments that offset the negativity elsewhere.
That soulfulness amid the misery is the key to making sense of ‘Spirit’. Something about Martin Gore’s summation of the state of the world on ‘Fail’, with its finger-pointing, ‘shame-on-you’ air evokes the same mood as Marvin Gaye’s ‘What's Going On’ album. Drawing a comparison between a late-period Depeche Mode LP – that some might cynically view as nothing more than a reason for yet another mega-tour – and a classic, politicised Motown album seems sacrilegious somehow, but weirdly apt. This is the kind of album that is necessary for shining a light on our basest traits and for encouraging us to think differently all over again; in that sense, for the first time in a long time, Depeche Mode have judged this just right.
Words: Mat Smith
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