In a way you have to respect Depeche Mode for not making things too easy for their listeners – after the gentle electronic blips and blops of Exciter (2001), the noisy start to Playing the Angel (2005) must have come as a surprise to many. But in the light of Sounds of the Universe (2009) and Delta Machine (2013), you could be forgiven for thinking Playing the Angel might be the last of the great Depeche Mode albums.
Released ten years ago this week – so exactly two decades after The Singles 81-85, there is little recognisable from the group who sang Just Can’t Get Enough a couple of decades earlier. Yet at the same time, A Pain That I’m Used To, the first track on the album and second single, is another classic piece of Depeche Mode, with its catchy melody and clever lyrics.
John the Revelator pushes the boundaries somewhat with its slightly daft rhymes (it doesn’t use “escalator”, “imitator”, “Rotavator”, or many of the other options), but interestingly seems to take heavy inspiration from a 1930s gospel blues song, which makes for an interesting mix.
By 2005, Dave Gahan had just unleashed his first solo album Paper Monsters (2003), and his songwriting on Playing the Angel makes for a welcome diversion, as final single Suffer Well turns out to be every bit as good as anything else on here, and the echoes of regular songwriter Martin L. Gore‘s works are very clear. Gore does have a fairly limited range of subjects in his songs, though, as The Sinner in Me demonstrates.
Every so often, though, Depeche Mode come up with something quite extraordinary, and Precious is exactly that. It’s a quiet, understated track by their standards, but it’s a beautifully pulsing piece of music, which really should have been a much larger hit than it was.
So Playing the Angel continues, with the curious Macro giving way to another Gahan-penned piece I Want it All, and then the lovely Nothing’s Impossible, the third and last of Gahan’s works on here. The dark-yet-positive lyric and melancholic delivery make for an exceptional combination. As I said at the start, Depeche Mode always challenge their listeners, and the sound of fans criticising their latest release is a common one, but I suspect most would agree that this album has matured into one of their best.
Then comes Introspectre, one of the trademark short instrumentals that many complained was missing from Delta Machine, mixing into Damaged People, with Martin L. Gore turning up as lead vocalist for just the second time on here (Macro was the first). Despite only being a three-piece (and bearing in mind that nobody ever seems to have entirely established what Andrew Fletcher‘s role in the group is), their switching of songwriters and vocalists makes for a varied mix of output, and therefore can only be applauded.
This leaves just two more songs – the other half of the double a-side single with John the Revelator, Lilian, which on the album could easily be missed, but it provides a welcome uptempo moment in the latter stages of the release. Then finally the lovely The Darkest Star, a crescendo which brings the album to a close beautifully.
After two and a half decades of making music, it’s impressive to think that Depeche Mode were still capable of creating an album that was this strong. There aren’t many acts who can make a claim like that.
You can still find Playing the Angel at all major retailers.