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Album review: Depeche Mode's 'Sounds of the Universe'

April 21, 2009 |  6:25 pm

Dmode_240 The best pop music is a work in progress, as artists refine and reignite their core sounds and vision one album at a time. In that way, Depeche Mode is a tighter operation than ever, a band of world-weary New Wave survivors still working from an early template, but who began to do their most lasting work only at the end of the '80s, with provocative statements like "Stripped" and "Personal Jesus."

That bleak tone is frequently recaptured on their newest release, "Sounds of the Universe," beginning with "In Chains," a brooding seven-minute romantic melodrama that hums and crackles with electronics as singer Dave Gahan seethes: "The way you are has left me burning." He's gifted at expressing desperate love, putting a gospel twist on the band's bitter hard-drive heart.

The best of these 13 tracks are inflamed with similar human emotion, using icy cool electronics as dramatic contrast to the feeling within "Hole to Feed," which percolates with vintage synth effects and the twang of Martin Gore's full-bodied acoustic guitar. It represents a harder edge than many of the pop acts inspired by Depeche Mode's example, beginning with the Killers. "Come Back" is practically industrial rock, with fuzzy, dirty sounds and a singer again in agony. On "Little Soul," Gahan announces: "This little voice is going to sing / I have no choice."

Those songs work spectacularly well, but there are equally stunning misfires when the band leans too heavily on past formula. "Jezebel" is the kind of torrid song of wounded love David Bowie might have sent into orbit, but here it's overcooked and windy. And without Gahan's breathless voice, the instrumental "Space Walk" is lightweight cosmic candy well suited for a 1981 video game. It stands out all the more alongside the harder-edged tracks.

One of those, "Corrupt," closes the album with waves of sound designed to build a get-tough, almost threatening atmosphere. It's the perfect soundtrack for your bitter robot soul.

-- Steve Appleford

Depeche Mode
"Sounds of the Universe"
Mute/Capitol/Virgin
Three stars

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