July 11 (Bloomberg) -- Doomy synths, swampy guitars and a grizzled gnome turning priapic pirouettes: Depeche Mode is once again having its deviant way with electro-pop. This approach has certainly paid commercial dividends. Its artistic merits are less convincing.
Easily dismissed as a cult alternative band, Depeche Mode has a huge audience. In the mid 1980s the British band darkened its perky synthpop with a heady swirl of religion, kinky sex and industrial clanking.
A fiercely devoted fanbase flocks to the band’s notoriously long tours. The Delta Machine tour has some 89 arena dates stretching throughout 2013; about 24 North American shows will take place from mid-August to October.
Dressed in black, band members Andy Fletcher and Martin Gore stand behind plain synthesizers. No laptops in evidence. Melodies and noises are played the old-fashioned way. The addition of a drummer is a concession to beefier live sound.
With mundane backing videos and no stage props, the show depends on singer Dave Gahan. Luckily he delivers sleazy confessions and brooding pop while prancing around like Freddie Mercury reincarnated as a seahorse. No stranger to excessive rock ‘n’ roll excess, his well-weathered features have more than a hint of a gnarly garden ornament. He wears Cuban heels and waistcoat, no shirt.
Gahan perfectly inhabits the frantic synth riffs of “A Question of Time,” a song about the legal tribulations of teenage lust, and the turpitude of “Policy of Truth.” He is equally convincing in the grungy stomp of “Personal Jesus.”
He fares less well in the newer songs, with their emphasis on swampy, bluesy guitars. Mode’s lusts are too esoteric to be convincingly earthy. Whatever the merits of his songwriting, Gore’s guitar playing remains limited. His basic twanging soon becomes tiresome. A plethora of songs from the new CD is a reminder that Mode albums have often been patchy.
Even some classic tracks disappoint. “Enjoy the Silence,” one of the most entrancing synthpop songs ever written, sounds devastatingly routine; the fizz of “Just Can’t Get Enough” is flat and tired. “Never Let Me Down Again” is shorn of its bombast power and militaristic frisson, becoming just another flabby singalong. Depeche Mode fans deserve something better.
The Depeche Mode tour continues tonight in Bilbao, Spain, and then across Europe including Portugal, France, Italy, the Czech Republic and Poland. The North American tour is followed by concerts in Abu Dhabi and Europe through February, 2014.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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