The return of Depeche Mode -- The gods of electro-pop talk about the release of their new, and perhaps best, album to date

CNN is wrapping up an interview with Depeche Mode, the gods of moody ’80s electro-pop. It’s their silver anniversary, but the band isn’t the sort to get all touchy-feely. Playing off some perceived tensions within the group, not to mention their dark image, the interviewer playfully asks if these three bandmates, who’ve braved 25 years together, will indulge in a group hug. They reluctantly oblige, but it’s one of those nervous embraces where no one seems to actually touch. Keyboard player Andrew Fletcher, untangling a mic cord from his clothing, offers an excuse: ”I have a wire up my ass.”

Wired up the wazoo: That’s Depeche Mode, who did as much as any other combo to free ”rock” from its guitar shackles, marrying proto-electronica to hooky, confessional songwriting and legitimizing new-wave synth-pop. Ephemeral as they once seemed, they’ve been around about as long as neo-elder statesmen U2 and R.E.M., and they have a new album, Playing the Angel, that fans hope will be their All That You Can’t Leave Behind, not their Around the Sun. Their best album since 1990’s triple-platinum Violator — and arguably the best thing they’ve done — Angel mixes tomorrow’s electronics and yesterday’s analog synths in the service of human laments strong enough to reignite ”black celebrations” throughout the land.

”Maybe it’s a little more instant than our last two albums,” allows band architect Martin Gore. He resists any suggestion that they consciously tried to go for gold — or platinum — this time. ”That sounds Machiavellian,” Gore laughs. ”I’ve just been DJ’ing a lot over the last year, so I’ve been listening to more dance music. And whenever we do something that’s got a bit more of a beat, it’s more accessible.”

Angel certainly gets less bogged down in ennui (bpm-wise anyway) than their last offering, 2001’s lush but perversely mislabeled Exciter. Lyrically, though, it’s as depressive as ever, despite the odd nod to hope in songs like ”Precious,” a moving prayer Gore wrote for his kids about the protracted divorce he’s currently caught up in.

These guys have flirted with separation themselves. ”There’s always a chance there might not be another Depeche Mode album, but we’ve been saying that since [1986’s] Black Celebration,” chuckles Gore. The latest face-off had Dave Gahan, long the mouthpiece for Gore’s auteurist writing, announcing he wouldn’t reenlist unless he got to contribute tunes, too. ”We made a compromise that I would get three songs on the album,” recalls the singer, who’d been newly emboldened by the writing he had done for his 2003 solo album, Paper Monsters. ”I reluctantly went along with that.” Why reluctantly? ”Because I went in saying ‘I won’t do it unless it’s half.’ But I knew I’d end up with a compromise.”

Fletcher found himself in the middle: ”The Who are the only other band I can think of where the singer doesn’t write the lyrics. We did recognize Dave wanted to be able to put forward his emotions in some songs. But Dave’s just starting to write and up against a world-class songwriter in Martin, so it was unrealistic to think he could get half the album. Maybe Martin was even generous with three.” Gore himself naturally argued that ceding half the album to Gahan’s tunes ”would throw a curveball at our fans. But two or three songs maybe is…a good thing. Like when I sing a couple of songs, it helps break up the — for want of a better word — sameness of having one singer. Putting some of Dave’s songs in has the same effect.”