More than any of the other popular synth acts of the late ’80s and early ’90s, Depeche Mode helped make rock more electronic. Much of that has to do with the simple fact that Depeche is the synth act most like a rock band: During the peak of their popularity, these Brits put on a show arguably far more rock-like than the American grunge bands with whom they shared alt-rock radio playlists. But the influence has been mutual: Over the course of their 33 years, the Modesters have employed more and more rock guitars, riffs, tonalities and performance styles to the point where on Delta Machine, their 13th album, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between their harshly distorted synths and their effects-driven guitars. Just when their indie brethren have embraced EDM, Depeche Mode have created an emphatically classic rock album.
As suggested by the lurching first single “Heaven,” the dance tempos and rhythms that define dozens of Depeche hits have been largely replaced by ballads and roots-y variations on their “Personal Jesus” boogie. The hooks paramount to the band’s enduring international success are also in shorter supply. Martin Gore remains a crafty and incisive songwriter, but the arrangements no longer maximize his catchiness. Instead, they showcase the moodiness of Dave Gahan’s matured vocals. One might think Gahan’s substance abuse might’ve done irrevocable damage to his vocal chords, but recovery has clearly paid off, as he’s arguably more expressive than ever on slow jams like “Welcome to My World,” “Goodbye” and, fittingly, “Slow.”
The ultimate key to Depeche’s universality, one that rarely gets explored, is the way their greatest songs comment on the human condition. Delivered as a sermon to a sinner who refuses salvation, “Alone” is the standout: It’s the kind of tear-soaked, dark disco anthem that Robyn and other Depeche students have mastered in recent years, but with the disco elements here entirely removed, waiting to be reinstated by willing remixers. “I couldn’t save your soul/ I couldn’t even take you home,” Gahan — a man well acquainted with despair — belts over muted beats and nocturnal noises. After all these years, few sing of strange love more knowingly than Depeche Mode.