Depeche Mode find something key in common with Devo on their new album. Four decades ago, that electro-shocked band declared that humans weren’t evolving, but rather devolving. In that same vein, Depeche Mode start their new album by announcing “We’re Going Backwards” before expressing exasperation and bafflement at “uneducated readers,” “patriotic junkies,” and “misguided leaders,” all of whom “have nothing inside.” “We’re hopeless,” frontman Dave Gahan concludes at the album’s close.
That’s not an uncommon assessment among certain types these days, but in Depeche Mode’s hands, it has led to what’s likely the first protest album against populism in the Trump/Brexit era. While Depeche Mode usually revel in personal psychodrama, spiked by a flourish of S&M, they decided to focus on the worst flaws of the species for Spirit. They’re well suited to the task. The band’s shadowy sound has always communicated a sense of condemnation, and their latest songs extend that pattern, with beats that crack like whips and synths that glower like beasts. It’s a dark pool of sound they’ve made, enlivened by some of Martin Gore’s most compelling melodies in years. Recent Depeche Mode albums have emphasized mood over songcraft, offering high-fi production and richly textured synths in place of entrancing tunes. Somehow, the new political focus has inspired a return to riffs and melodies that stick.
The album switches things up in its center with a string of songs about relationships, though even these favor the bellicose or the sneering. “You Move” repeats the group’s frequent mix of lust, fetish, and emotional remove. “No More” bids a dying love good riddance. It’s the political songs, however, that give the album cohesion and purpose, not to mention an outlook that’s admirably unafraid to express contempt.
The lyrics may spew bile, but it’s got a beat you can dance to.
Finally, an argument against “trickle down economics” you can hum.