Depeche Mode – Ben Hillier Trilogy

Trilogies of albums with a single producer seem to be somewhat en vogue in recent years, and since the release schedule is so much slower for most artists than it used to be, that can mean an ongoing collaboration lasting more than a decade. So it is with Depeche Mode‘s recent trilogy of albums with Ben Hillier.

The story began in late 2004 or early 2005 with the sessions to record Playing the Angel (released 2005). Depeche Mode were back in their stride by now, perhaps the most comfortable they had ever been with who they were. A decade earlier, the end of the Songs of Faith and Devotion tour saw the band in turmoil, with drug and alcohol abuse, Dave Gahan close to death, and the permanent departure of Alan Wilder. Ultra (1997), although undeniably dark in character, saw the first step of their rebirth, and the lighter Exciter (2001) saw them celebrating the pop and dark sides of their past.

This must have left them in a difficult place, in terms of the style they wanted to hit with the next album, but Playing the Angel finds them still comfortable with their sound. There’s nothing really weak about this album – it hops between exceptional (such as lead single Precious and follow-up A Pain That I’m Used to) and fair (tracks such as I Want it All and Macro may not be the band’s most memorable, but are far from their worst).

After the inevitable tour, they filled their time off with a good but unnecessary compilation, The Best of Depeche Mode – Volume 1, led by the lovely Martyr, an outtake from the previous album, and then some solo work including Gahan’s lovely second album Hourglass, before returning with Sounds of the Universe (2009).

This is where the idea of a producer-based trilogy starts to cause problems. Depeche Mode have always suffered badly from loudness, and all three of these albums are particularly bad examples, which would benefit from remastering despite not being particularly old. So that’s one problem, and the lack of change seems to have impacted creativity somewhat too.

It’s not that Sounds of the Universe is particularly badWrong is a great, beautifully dark, first single, and there are other great tracks on here too, such as Peace and Perfect. It’s just that a lot of it is very average, by Depeche Mode standards. Dave Gahan‘s songwriting contributions are fair at best, and a lot of Martin L. Gore‘s seem a little uninspired. Possibly the finest track of all on here is the Gahan/Gore songwriting collaboration Oh Well, which was inexplicably disposed of on the b-side of Wrong and the bonus disc of the album.

That bonus disc – and the box set of other discs – is this album’s saving grace. This was an age where Depeche Mode remixes were generally of high calibre, and the disc of historic demos is very welcome too. The album was still hugely successful, hitting number 2 in the UK and number 1 in many countries, so it was far from a failure – just perhaps a little disappointing.

Depeche Mode albums seem to take a four-year pattern, with an album (2009) followed by a tour (Tour of the Universe, 2009-2010), a DVD (Tour of the Universe: Barcelona 20/21.11.09, 2010), some side projects (Remixes 2: 81–11, 2011, and the adorable The Light the Dead See by Dave Gahan and Soulsavers, 2012), all of which kept the band more than busy enough before they needed to start work on the final release in the trilogy in 2012.

Delta Machine (2013) is the real disappointment in the trilogy. It’s worthy – there’s more real instrumentation here, and some great moments, including – as always, the lead single Heaven. Final single Should Be Higher is great too. But there’s a lot that isn’t, particularly Angel and Secret to the End, and the overriding impression you get is just how loud everything is. In the charts, Depeche Mode can do very little wrong, so maybe none of this matters particularly, but the final piece of this trilogy was not their best work.

Their fans never seem particularly keen whenever a new album lands, but enough time has passed now that the popular opinion on Delta Machine should have mellowed. Maybe it has, but I have to say, I’m still struggling.

However, this trilogy showed us that Depeche Mode have plenty more to offer the world of music, even if they only do it together once between each Olympics and World Cup. It showed us that they were capable of being very loud, even if that came at the cost of sound quality. And it showed us that maybe they benefit from having a new producer for each album, or perhaps this trilogy coincided with a wane in their creativity. Either way, they definitely still have it, and their time with Ben Hillier produced some of their best material. But it also produced some less notable works too.

See here for another summary of a producer trilogy.

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