Hippo Manchester
November 17, 2005

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Depeche Mode

Playing The Angel

Sire/Reprise

**1/2

On their eleventh studio album, Depeche Mode sets the disc’s mood with the screech of a synthetic air horn on the opening track, “A Pain That I’m Used To.” Long the purveyors of music to pout by, which Morrissey helped invent in the early 80s, DM today is an older, wiser band but certainly no less melancholy.

They don’t change much on Angel – Martin Gore still writes electro-pop ditties and Dave Gahan still laments his way through them. It’s a formula that’s worked since their 1981 debut, Speak and Spell. But age has clearly darkened their perspective. Initially, their identity consisted of swirling synthesizers and bouncy pop songs. (Heck, Gore and Gahan were practically giddy in those days.) Buy in the last decade or so, DM has taken a more somber road, which has resulted in some of their biggest chart successes with albums like 1990’s Violator and 2001’s Exciter. Angel may not win them any new fans but it may at least placate their loyalists.

The first single “Precious” is text book Depeche — throbbing synth line, ominous lyrics (“Things get damaged, things get broken.”). The rest of the album is just as cheery, with tracks like “The Darkest Star,” and “Damaged People.” When the timbre does lift on “Nothing’s Impossible,” it’s not that Gore has had a Dr. Phil moment; it’s just Gahan taking over the songwriting reins. And skip “Introspective,” an apparent musical ode to Chinese water torture. At one minute thirty seconds, this cloying and unnecessary turd sounds like someone left the recorder on during a sound check.

Overall, Playing The Angel is a misnomer. These masters of Gloom Rock are are still wallowing in their misery, but hey, at least they can write mostly listenable songs about it.

— George Pelletier