Depeche Mode’s “Delta Machine” now streaming on iTunes
How is it that Depeche Mode are one of the few stadium-filling bands from the ‘80s still standing?
It isn’t just that Dave Gahan, Martin Gore, and Andy Fletcher remain upright, though that is impressive considering Gahan’s well-documented struggles with substance abuse. The real feat is that the Depeche Mode sound—obsessively constructed monoliths of synth-based, salvation-obsessed twitchiness—still feels fresh 13 albums into their career.
From another angle, it’s obvious: Most of the time they’ve been so far ahead of the curve that even their most pedestrian output sounds inventive, and you need only look at their followers—from Nine Inch Nails to Frank Ocean—to see that game recognizes game.
Delta Machine is the strongest album the group has put out this century, brushing up against the locked-in grooves of the group’s late-‘80s crest that began with 1984’s Some Great Reward and ran through the revolutionary classic Violator in 1990. Much of that credit should probably go to collaborator Christoffer Berg, who has previously worked with Swedish electro-terrorists the Knife; he lends a long-lost toughness that runs through much of Delta, especially the end-of-days bass loop that underscores “Secret to the End” and the insistent pounding of “Soft Touch / Raw Nerve.”
In the wrong hands, those instincts would be pushed to the point of abrasiveness, but like any goth greats, Gahan and Gore recognize the need for equal parts candy and razor blades, so the songcraft and melodic flourishes on Delta Machine are as strong as the sonic boundary-pushing. And Gahan still has one of the most darkly sweet baritones in rock, despite the cracks that have snuck into his upper register; some of the gauzier tracks, like the brooding “Alone,” start out drab until Gahan brings the honey, at which point they suddenly shift into deeply compelling technicolor.
Like David Bowie, DM inexplicably chose one of the more bloodless tracks from their big comeback album as the first single, and though Gahan is a fine balladeer, the two songs that find the BPM knob turned way down (the deep-but-plodding “Heaven” and the drippy “The Child Inside”) are digital quicksand. Experience has taught them to finish strong, which is why the stomping, anthemic “Soothe My Soul” and the bluesy, explosive “Goodbye” end Delta Machine on a hallucinatory high note.
The former is especially brilliant at expressing everything that Depeche Mode does well: Sharp rhythmic undercurrent, snarling guitars, paranoid-sounding keyboard hiccups, and Gahan bellowing “I’m coming for you.” Depeche Mode are the definitive synth-rock sharks: They’re survivors, and they can’t stop charging forward.