Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Depeche Mode Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993, Sire/Reprise)

A

It’s a tad spottier than Violator, and it’s noticeably darker and gloomier than its predecessor as well, so there’s nothing here quite as effervescent as “Enjoy the Silence.” Still, this is a very well-crafted album, and though the band isn’t exactly in the happiest of moods here, they haven’t stopped delivering hooks, either, so there’s plenty of memorable tunes here, especially the slithering, eerie grooves of “Walking in My Shoes” and the fiery, thrashing “I Feel You,” which opens the album with a jarring burst of feedback before easing into a surprisingly catchy, dirty, grinding blues-rock number that is easily the most rock-and-roll oriented cut the band has attempted to date. It’s obvious from the cut that the band has been listening to Nine Inch Nails lately, but it doesn’t sound like a rip-off, either, and as completely left-field as it sounds upon first listen, it’s also one of the band’s all-time greatest moments and deservedly reached the Top 40. Those two songs are placed at the beginning of the disc, which makes the rest of the album seem slightly anticlimactic, but there are still plenty of fine songs throughout, including “The Mercy in You,” “Condemnation,” and “In Your Room.”

Ultra (1997, Reprise)

C +  

Easily the band’s gloomiest album, this isn’t a terrible disc by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not exactly a heck of a lot of fun, either. Mind you, the band wasn’t in the best of places at the time – Alan Wilder had quit the band by this point, while Gahan and Gore were wrestling with drug and alcohol addictions, respectively, and Andy Fletcher was suffering from depression – so it’s perhaps understandable that the music here is so dark (the lead-off single, “Barrel of a Gun,” even makes the Beatles’ “Yer Blues” sound happy in comparison), but it’s hard to avoid feeling that they should have waited to go back in the studio until they were in a slightly happier frame of mind. While this isn’t exactly a great disc to listen to in its entirety in one sitting unless you’re in just the right mood, there are a handful of very good individual tracks, particularly “Home,” “Useless,” “The Bottom Line,” and, best of all, the slinky Top 40 hit “It’s No Good,” which is every bit as brilliant – and even catchier – than Songs of Faith and Devotion’s “Walking in My Shoes.”

Exciter (2001, Reprise)

B +  

A thankfully much more easygoing and happier affair than the gloomy Ultra, the band’s first album of the new millennium is not exactly a return to danceable territory, but it’s not depressing, either, and many of the melodies here are quite pretty. The album gets off to a fabulous start with the inventive “Dream On,” the best Depeche Mode single since “I Feel You” eight years earlier and one that brilliantly fuses a great recurring acoustic guitar lick to skittering programmed beats, while the gentle ballad “Freelove” boasts every bit as strong and catchy a chorus. Other highlights include the club-minded “I Feel Loved,” the bluesy “The Sweetest Condition,” and the ballad “When the Body Speaks.” It’s not quite as essential a purchase as Songs of Faith and Devotion, but it’s not that far off in quality from that album, either, and is a welcome return to form following the disappointing Ultra.

Playing the Angel (2005, Reprise/Sire)

A

It may be lacking anything quite as fun or as immediately hooky as “Dream On” from the last album, but Playing the Angel (which also has the distinction of being the first album from the band to feature songs penned by lead singer Dave Gahan) is arguably the band’s most solid album overall since Songs of Faith and Devotion. “A Pain That I’m Used To” is a bit too abrasive a cut to have really made a good choice for the opening track, but the band compensates for that with the second track, the catchy, dark gospel of “John the Revelator,” easily one of the band’s best post-Faith and Devotion moments, and “Precious” and “Suffer Well” (one of the three cuts contributed by Gahan) are nearly every bit as strong. Even the throwaway cut “Lilian,” buried near the very back of the album, is great fun. Of the band’s four post-‘90s albums to date, this one is the most essential. 

Sounds of the Universe (2009, Capitol)

B +

Like Playing the Angel, the band’s first (and, as it would turn out, only) album for Capitol opens on a disappointing note with the weak “In Chains,” which opens with nearly a minute-and-a-half of droning synthesizer noises before the vocals finally kick in. But don’t let that cut throw you for a loop: the disc does get better, finally kicking into first gear on the third cut, the excellent, if haunting, Nine-Inch-Nails-like single “Wrong.” The song is a bit dark (and its music video substantially even more so), but it’s still a good one and is nearly every bit as great a single as “John the Revelator” from the last album. The Gahan-penned “Miles Away/The Truth Is” is a highlight, as is “Perfect,” while “In Sympathy” is the most danceable cut the band has issued in some time. 

Delta Machine (2013, Columbia)

C

Arguably the most disappointing album the band has made to date and certainly the most disappointing they’ve made since Ultra, this isn’t technically a bad album, but it’s not exactly good, either. The fundamental problem with it is that the band has strayed too far away by this point from what it does best: not only is there little here on this ballad-heavy disc that you can dance to (with “Should Be Here” being the only possible exception, and even that one comes from the pen of Dave Gahan, not primary songwriter Martin Gore), but the band is favoring mood too heavily over a memorable melody, and while the disc is often quite beautiful, it’s also incredibly lacking in the hooks department, so it’s fairly hard to remember how most of these songs go. Even the album’s first single, “Heaven,” while still good, isn’t terribly catchy for a lead-off single. But there are still enough highlights here to render this disc a decent listen, including “Soothe My Soul,” while Gahan surprisingly pens what might be the two best cuts here, “Secret to the End” and “Broken,” the latter of which recalls vintage Depeche Mode. [Gahan, in fact, is responsible for writing so many of the best – and the most distinctly Depeche Mode-sounding – tunes on the band’s most recent three albums that it’s kind of a shame that he typically only contributes three songs per disc; a whole album of Gahan-penned material would actually be quite welcome, especially if Martin Gore continues to keep moving so far away from everything that made Violator so great.]    

Compilations:

The seventeen-track 1998 package The Singles 81>85  is a pretty much flawless summation of the group’s earliest years, coupling all the singles from the first four albums with the non-LP single “Get the Balance Right” and the 1985 singles “Shake the Disease” and “It’s Called a Heart.” Its companion piece, the double-disc The Singles 86>98, rounds up all the singles from Black Celebration through Ultra and adds a brand-new single, “Only When I Lose Myself.” Together, the two packages (three discs in all) are a pretty much perfect anthology of the group’s first two decades, even if the focus on singles means that none of the band’s best album cuts crop up here. If you’re looking for something cheaper, there is a one-disc package available, the 2006 compilation The Best of Depeche Mode Volume 1, that covers their full career rather than just one era, but it’s not sequenced chronologically and, by narrowing the group’s full career from 1981 through 2005 down to a single disc, some really good songs are lost in the process, and the disc is lacking such essential singles as “Policy of Truth” (one of just six Top 40 hits the band scored in America, which makes its absence rather puzzling) and “Somebody,” both of which really should have been included here in place of “Suffer Well” and the new cut “Martyr”; still, for a one-disc sampler of twenty-five years’ worth of music, it’s mostly very well-done and is not at all a bad introduction to the band’s music.

Live Albums:

The band’s quintessential live album is its very first, the 1989 package 101, which was recorded during the world tour for Music for the Masses. Because it came so early in its career, it lacks any songs from Violator or Songs of Faith and Devotion, but it does contain material from nearly all of their ‘80s albums (A Broken Frame is the only disc not represented) and the band sounds great. It’s also one of the rare full-length packages you’ll find any rendition – either live or studio – of the great B-side “Pleasure, Little Treasure.”