Playing the Angel by Depeche Mode: Music Review

Being a child of 80s europop, pseudo-poetical lyrics mixed with an electronic beat and a melancholic voice make my heart go zing-zing. At the height of their powers, the group who ruled that crushed velvet throne was Depeche Mode, but in the decade and a half since Violator (arguably their last good album), I can’t say they’ve been able to hit that sweet, minor-key note of theirs again. Their new album, Playing the Angel, has been touted by some as a return to their 80s glory, but I’m more than a little wary of such boasts. The last group to make that claim was Duran Duran with their recent album Astronaut. They even went so far as to reconstitute their group with its five original members. For me, Astronaut was no Rio and certainly no Seven and the Ragged Tiger. So now Depeche Mode is back after four years off, hoping to recapture something from decades passed. But times have changed. Some of us have changed too and I wonder if the lords of gloom will find a place on my iPod next to Clay Aiken (yes, you read that right, and I’m not repeating it) and his kind. Perhaps they can park themselves next to Evanescence.

All Personal Jesuses aside, Playing the Angel really is their best work since the 80s. Only time will tell if there are any classic songs among its 12 tracks; any Strangeloves or Blasphemous Rumours. But their synths have been re-tuned and recharged and lead David Gahan’s vocals are delightfully mournful. I’d say there’s even a crack of light in the darkness, a glint of hope amidst the gloom—for those of use who have mellowed with age.

My favourite tracks

Precious – This will be their first radio single and the first track I heard, because it was featured on an episode of Smallville. I identified it right away as Depeche Mode because it sounded just like them (along with the many Depeche-lite imitation groups that cropped up in the early 90s). The melody is pleasant and mainstream, and definitely straight from that time period—so much that it kind of felt out of place on Smallville, as if Lana and Clark were a bit too young to appreciate the music that was playing over their tender scene.
Sample lyric: “Angels with silver wings shouldn’t know suffering. I wish I could take the pain for you. If God has a master plan that he only understands, I hope it’s your eyes he’s seeing through.”

A Pain That I’m Used To – The title of this first track says it all—they’re back. After the air-raid siren sound opens the album, the pure electro club beat kicks in followed by Gahan’s vocals hitting a familiar droning melody and we know we’re in the comfort zone.
Sample lyric: “All this running around, well it’s getting me down. Just give me the pain that I’m used to.”

John the Revelator – I’m not exactly sure what statement is being made about religion and possibly politics, but this may be the catchiest Depeche Mode song there’s ever been (maybe except for Personal Jesus… and I Just Can’t Get Enough… well it’s up there, anyway). It’s great, yet almost odd for a DM tune to be so head-bob-inducing.
Sample lyric: “By claiming God as his only rock, he’s stealing a god from the Israelites, stealing a god from the Muslim too. There is only one God through and through. Seven lies multiplied by seven; multiplied by seven again. Seven angels with seven trumpets sent them home on the morning train.”

The Darkest Star – I love the lyrics to this song. They’re like a love letter to us, the fans who connected to their bittersweetness in the 80s but have buttoned it down over years of growing up. Now, decades later, this song is like an incantation to summon up those parts of our souls again.
Sample lyric: “Oh you dark one, eternal outsider, caught in the spider web you’ve spun. Oh you blind one, gentle and kind one, seeing the world as a loaded gun. I don’t want you to change anything you do.”

It’s obvious from this review that the appeal of this album for me is largely nostalgia, but it’s a strong force nonetheless. Many reviewers who probably have a more objective standard have also given raves to this album, so perhaps they have better points to make. However, if you are like me and have missed the kind of melancholy music that was Depeche Mode’s stock and trade, get ready to dim the lights, light a candle or two, and enjoy the pleasures of pain again.

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2 thoughts on “Playing the Angel by Depeche Mode: Music Review”

  1. Alright, sounds like I’ll have to get this album — the very fact that one of the tracks opens with an air raid siren is like a tribute to Music For The Masses. Ahh, the sweet sound of Pimpf and Agent Orange…

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