The formula for a great late release from an ageing pop artist is hard to crack, but not impossible. In their later years, some bands may opt to foray into completely new ideas, whilst some may instead chose to rest on their laurels more than ever before. Some groups may become a bit more relaxed and be less fussed about being taken seriously, whilst others will attempt to maintain as serious and straight-faced a façade as possible, as to come across as confident in their age. Essex synthpop veterans Depeche Mode have now been active for almost four decades, with their latest album, Spirit, being their 14th full-length studio effort. The attitude conveyed on the sole single released in promotion of Spirit, Where’s the Revolution, was one of Depeche Mode at their most serious, but, at the same time, at their least mature, with the band seemingly remaining ignorant of this. Unfortunately, the sentiment established on this single runs as the rule rather than the exception on this record. For much of Spirit, frontman Dave Gahan provides some of his most crude and naïve lyrics to date, masquerading as thoughtful or audacious, and often delivered with some equally weak vocal performances. Musically speaking, too, Spirit sees the trio’s once bright and dynamic sound toned down considerably, often to the point of sounding dry or tired, which is only exacerbated by the lacklustre production on much of this album. In this regard, Spirit is one of Depeche Mode’s least Depeche Mode-sounding records thus far in their career, routinely using the stylings of other artists as touchstones without effectively playing with these sounds, thus coming across as stale much of the time. Overall, whilst there are some good moments here and there, wherein Depeche Mode throwback to their original charm without sounding dated, Spirit, for the most part, exhibits a Depeche Mode that has aged somewhat awkwardly, with the band unsure as to whether they want to sound classic or fresh and, ultimately, getting stuck in a synthpop purgatory as a result.
As for the general themes displayed on Spirit, Depeche Mode pursue a much darker and moodier sound than what is typical for the group, not just instrumentally, but also in the fact that Gahan’s vocals are given a lot more room, which the singer uses to touch on various contemporary political talking points. The extent to which the group effectively actualise this approach, however, is routinely rather insular in scope, often being founded on some skeletal ideas that do not come to fruition in the context of a full song at all compellingly. The opening track, Going Backwards, for instance, creates a relatively competent moody vibe, with the grumbling piano bass notes and the glitchy electronic percussion, but beyond the general atmosphere the group craft on this track, there is little to speak of in terms of satisfying structure. Across it’s nearly six-minute runtime, the progression of the piece is largely hinged on the instrumental textures that are added, which, although detailed, result in a song that is so plainly linear in structure as to end up being rather predictable. What’s more, such a structure shifts a great deal of the listener’s attention to Gahan’s tepid vocal performance and his lyrics, which, despite being far from his most egregious on the record, deal with the notion that society is regressing in such a vapid and vague manner as to not really evoke any response from the listener, whether they agree or disagree. As it happens, Going Backwards is one of the more likeable songs on the record, even despite its obvious flaws, as a lot of the flashy effects and swirling melodies are rather satisfying and are textured nicely, but, as a whole, it establishes a slightly altered stylistic attitude for Depeche Mode, to which they only seem casually committed and, compositionally speaking, the song suffers as a result.
Beyond the opening track, however, the quality of Spirit takes a notable nosedive. Lead single Where’s the Revolution is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the clumsy integration of more diverse musical ideas and Gahan’s dire political ramblings. Whilst the glitchy percussion and buzzing synths throughout the verses of this song effectively capture a dark atmosphere, Gahan’s vocal delivery is oddly affected, with the singer sounding as if he is deliberately straining his voice atop the verses and lacking much cohesion with the instrumental during the chorus. As for the latter point, this isn’t helped by the fact that the band’s transition between the quiet, brooding instrumental over the verse and the roaring timbre of the chorus is incredibly clumsy and, as a result, their performance over the chorus is noticeably stiff. Unfortunately, it’s hard to avoid discussing the politically-charged lyrics on Where’s the Revolution, which are as obtuse and patronising as many of Gahan’s incoherent lectures on Spirit. Similarly to Going Backwards, Gahan’s lines on Where’s the Revolution are so nondescript and wishy-washy as to reflect no real meaning behind them, which almost seems deliberate as a means of avoiding having to think through any insightful observations about world politics. The main message conveyed is one of condescension, with the refrain of, “Where’s the revolution? / Come on, people / You’re letting me down” being laughably snobbish and sanctimonious, particularly given that Gahan has offered no tangible reason as to why his listeners should be whipped up into the frenzy that he is demanding. The frontman resorts to similar lyrical tactics on a handful of tracks on Spirit, with another notable example being Poorman, which features an empty and uninspiring criticism of laissez-faire economics with absolutely no weight behind it as to elicit any real response from the listener. Given that Gahan takes such a brazenly political stance on many of these songs, and considering the emphasis on his vocal performances resulting from the space left by the restricted electro-pop instrumentals, one would expect a heightened effort from the singer to provide some genuinely poignant insight delivered with compelling performances, but Spirit, strangely, is below average for Depeche Mode in both of these regards.
Shifting the focus back to the musical side of things, Depeche Mode take some definite risks on Spirit in their pursuit of a notably darker sound, but very few of such endeavours pay off particularly well, rather they tend to sound somewhat awkward. The abrupt bursts of industrial noise on Scum, for instance, are paired horribly with Gahan’s distorted vocal effect and clumsy performance, and, ultimately, clash with the lighter ambience that provides the foundation for the piece. As the track progresses, the band continuously adds layers of electronic textures that ultimately pile up and clutter the mix, exhibiting an obvious lack of care taken when attempting to craft the brassy soundscape for which they seemed to be aiming. Other tracks see an ugly collision of two varying worlds, such as the ungainly attempt to integrate clamorous bursts of synth into a ballad on Poison Heart, or the closing track, Fail, which sees the group try their best Radiohead impression as Gahan’s drab vocals clumsily manoeuvre over the messy clattering of arbitrary electronic effects. Ultimately, much of Spirit is rather awkwardly assembled, which only highlights the lacking, and occasionally genuinely ungainly, performances by the band.
Throughout Spirit, particularly early on in the tracklisting, Depeche Mode intermittently convey some good ideas, but such moments are unfortunately drowned out by the audacious instrumental arrangements, that are handled rather poorly, and Gahan’s lacklustre vocal deliveries. Considering Depeche Mode were once the target of much criticism regarding their stagnancy, Spirit arguably marks an awareness of this and, as a result, demonstrates an increased keenness to play with electronic-based pop and rock music like they have seldom done in the past. However, such attempts amount to being largely superficial, as the group provides very little in the way of coherent compositional capabilities when toying with these ideas. In a sense, despite seemingly experimenting on the surface, the group seems to almost be attempting to force a square peg into a round hole, by taking a much moodier electronic vibe and applying it to the unaltered songwriting formula of their previous material. Therefore, although Depeche Mode’s excursion into previously unexplored sounds can be admired, its execution cannot.
The Vinyl Verdict: 4/10