Despite colossal album sales of over 100 million and a stadium-sized live following perhaps only bettered by U2 and Coldplay, Depeche Mode still have a reputation as unsung heroes. Of course, they’ve had the occasional blockbuster moment (the Violator album in particular), but on the whole, their pioneering electro has always sounded a little too ahead of the curve to truly fit in with what’s going on in the mainstream.
The final part of their trilogy with producer Ben Hillier and their 13th studio effort, Delta Machine, is unlikely to change their outsider status. If anything, it’s the chilliest, rawest and most austere record of their astonishing 33-year career.
The sci-fi synth-rock of “Broken” and the Martin Gore-fronted cosmic balladry of “The Child Inside” both appear to deal with the tragic tale of a girl whose innocence was robbed at a young age. The whip-cracking gothic disco of “Should Be Higher” alludes to Dave Gahan’s near-fatal drug battle with its grisly talk of ‘infected arms.’ Meanwhile, the crunching noirish electronica of “Alone” sees him almost howl in misery after his ‘father, son, holy ghost and spirit’ balancing act fails to save one of the many troubled souls that permeate these 13 tracks.
Delta Machine, therefore, is largely an unremittingly miserable experience. Indeed, even when Depeche Mode are focusing on carnal pleasures, as on the scuzzy blues of “Slow” and the stinging electro-glam of “Soothe My Soul,” aka “Personal Jesus” Part II, there’s an underlying seediness and self-loathing which makes its lessons of lust equally unsettling.
Occasionally, such melodrama threatens to sink the record under its own weight, particularly on the doom-laden drone of “Heaven,” easily their stodgiest and most over-wrought lead single to date, and the industrial-tinged “Angel,” where Gahan appears to be channelling both a sleazy Vegas lounge lizard and a fervent evangelical preacher at the same time.
But overall, there’s a spacious and subsonic beauty to all the bleakness that surrounds Delta Machine, whilst the wonky minimalist techno of “My Little Universe” proves that Depeche Mode are still capable of pulling the odd unexpected trick out of their sleeve too.