On their 11th proper studio album, Playing the Angel, Depeche Mode sound almost atmospheric. This ambience isn’t really expected A– as a Depeche Mode record to dance or maybe even get in touch with your inner savior. Playing just comes off as background music. Not that “lighter” music isn’t enjoyable, but for the English granddads of an incredibly successful Generation X musical invasion, it just falls short. Singer David Gahan’s morose delivery hasn’t changed in decades, but on Playing there’s an inflection in his vocals that screams – well, boredom. And for a guy that still has the ability to draw shouts of delight from fans who claimed stake in Mode in the early ’80s, that’s kind of disappointing.
Gahan’s boredom aside, Playing‘s ambient flourishes are indeed mechanically gorgeous and sprawling. Listen to the record on good speakers and enjoy a three-dimensional rush of sound. Simulated walls of synth buzzing, minor piano chords and baritone guitar plucks envelop the listener. Great production, however, doesn’t make for a great album. Playing comes off as a pacemaker of a record compared to classics like Mode’s 1990 staple Violator or even newer attempts like 2001’s Exciter. Pacemakers do their job, but they’re automated, and in Mode’s case, don’t allow for an exciting addition to the catalog this late in their career.
“A Pain That I’m Used To” kicks things off with trademark jarring buzz. Gahan laments, “I’m not sure what I’m lookin’ for anymore,” and he’s not kidding. Though maybe it’s Mode lyricist and keyboardist Martin L. Gore that’s unsure. Some of Gore’s once bold and simple lyrics now come off as mundane and trite. Gore attempts to be poetic, but there’s just something increasingly banal with lines like “Can’t conceal what I feel / What I know is real.” Gore also takes Playing as an opportunity to wax A