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On a par with Exciter. . .
on 17 November 2005
If I had to compile my favourite Depeche Mode songs from each of their albums the three I’d include immediately from PTA would be "Suffer Well", "Precious" and "Nothing's Impossible". For me, after repeated listening, these have the most emotional resonance. While the verse lyrics of “Suffer Well” don’t make much of an impression, the song has a highly singable chorus and enjoyably crunchy guitar that moves it forwards nicely. With "Precious", the openness and stark production work to great effect to foreground the nakedness of the emotion in the lyrics. It's catchy – the best single they’ve released in a while – and has the substance to give it staying power. "Nothing's Impossible" is a grower. It is darkly optimistic and has a 'we're in the gutter but looking up at the stars' vibe so the dark and 'twinkly' production suits it well. While it never gets off the ground in a big way, also because of Dave's filtered singing, the submerged monochrome quality is a large part of its appeal. I would also include "The Sinner In Me" which, while not covering any new ground lyrically, has plenty of rewarding detail in the production which drives the song and gives it its edgy atmosphere.
“Lilian” was a potential contender but it’s almost annoyingly catchy and kind of lightweight. I like the way they've perhaps echoed to some extent the classic synth sound of "It's No Good" – which provides a continuity of sorts – but it also feels like they've referenced themselves a little too closely in lyrics like "you've stripped my heart/ ripped it apart" which recall the formulaic pop of "It's Called A Heart". Dave’s vocals are also too ‘dry treated’. Another possible inclusion would have been “A Pain That I’m Used To” because of the catchy chorus and the existential angst. It grates though, that the band saw fit to revive the plastic-sounding goth noise of Exciter's "The Dead Of Night" in an attempt to lend the song some sort of appropriate drama. Also, while “A Pain That I’m Used To” is one of the better songs, beyond a certain point it just doesn’t really ‘say’ anything to me.
The best of the rest are “John The Revelator” and “The Darkest Star” but I wouldn’t include these either. "John The Revelator" is catchy; a brooding stomper. The aggressive vocal style works for me too, if I’m in the mood for it, as does the clever revival of the gospel feel of SOFAD in the song's chorus. However, in the end, it's not as sophisticated or thought-provoking as songs they've done before when venturing into similar territory like "Personal Jesus" or "Blasphemous Rumours". In “The Darkest Star” the angle for the song is good, and piano and appropriately stellar sound effects work well to carry it along, but it’s too drawn out and dirge-like somehow to make a lasting impression.
On, Exciter, similarly, there are only a few songs I’d want to include on a compilation of album favourites: “Dream On” (great lyrics and properly finished unlike other Exciter songs); “When The Body Speaks” (sustained meditative quality); “Comatose” (wonderfully experimental sound texture and nice chorus despite awful verse lyrics); “I Feel Loved” (slight but definitely upbeat); “I Am You” (nice idea & production - except for the ending; strangely addictive). These songs for me, whatever their flaws, are the ones that strike an emotional chord and are the ones I go back to. I don’t listen to the others, even though I like the chorus of “Shine” and I like the sentiment in “Freelove”.
Exciter is definitely the point where the benchmark for quality was dropped – often weak and repetitive lyrics, endless soulful crooning meets boy-band pop, flat production and a dreary overall feel. I think that despite the over-compression in the mastering on PTA, the production is alright – sometimes very good, and sometimes a bit tinny, but on occasion making some of the weaker songs more interesting. What remains clear, though, is that since Alan Wilder's departure Depeche haven't managed to recapture generally and to the same degree the unique sonic richness and depth that was used to match and flesh out the songwriting while he was on board. Of the post-Wilder albums, I would say that Ultra is the best-produced (one need look only to the arrangements on “Home”, for example.)
PTA's weak points are again, as with Exciter, that some of the songs are compromised by patchy or excessively self-indulgent lyrics (the Gore-sung ballads are a prime example.) Because they stepped up the tempo on PTA and the songwriting is generally more accessible, I initially felt that PTA, on the face of it, was much better than Exciter (also since the first half of PTA offers more consistency), but in terms of overall album quality I think they're pretty much equal despite their different approaches. Exciter is uneven, but do I like those experiments that work. The feeling I have with Playing the Angel is that it's more of a stylistic triumph rather than being “their best since Violator” etc. It’s 'Depeche Mode reclaiming Depeche Mode', if you like - enjoyable on its own terms, and often well crafted - but, rather like Exciter, it doesn't have a consistently strong set of songs comparable to the best of their past work despite also referencing as well as trying to update their musical past. That the album overplays its hand thematically is already acknowledged in the album's subtitle: "pain and suffering in various tempos". Then again, with SOFAD, they also went overboard on the ‘faith and devotion’ aspects.
So, all in all, since Exciter, when it comes to listening to Depeche Mode albums in their entirety, for me it's been a case of diminishing returns though I also think that they’ve put out some fantastic albums. PTA is a good effort in many ways - it has elements of what makes Depeche Mode special - but it doesn't, overall, do for me what Depeche Mode once did. I'm still hoping (though the odds are against it actually happening) that they'll do something exceptional - which is precisely what albums like MFTM, Violator, BC, SGR, Ultra and even SOFAD (on the strength of its best songs) and CTA (largely thanks to the way its production fits the songs) still are.