You’d expect a band releasing their 14th studio album to do a bit of phoning it in. A sense of backsliding perhaps, in the twilight of their storied career. With Spirit, Depeche Mode prove that not only are they not just going through the motions, they’re pushing the envelope like a band who still has something to prove. Spirit is exactly the right album at exactly the right time for Depeche Mode, and it’s one of the most interesting entries to their catalog.
Before we really dive in I’d like to tackle a couple of things that have been buzzing around about the album. The political nature of Where’s the Revolution had people wondering if the album was going to be tilted this way. The answer is yes and no. While some tracks are certainly topical to the world we live in today, I’d say that they are more a voice of concern than hammer on nail political. Depeche Mode aren’t taking sides here or pushing an agenda, they’re speaking out about what they see around them. I’d also like to note that this album was written before Brexit or the American election cycle. Be careful not to push your own political beliefs onto what Depeche Mode is saying…all they are saying is to open your eyes and make your own decisions.
The second thing I’d heard as a concern was the direction producer James Ford would take with the band. Depeche Mode fans are loyal to a fault but there is also a sub-sect that hasn’t found a good thing to say since Alan Wilder left and Flood was no longer producing the albums. All I have to say is you’re missing out on half the excitement of a new Depeche Mode release if you’re already discounting it before it releases. I can say one thing, James Ford did a spectacular job. The production work on Spirit, for me, is a high water mark in the modern era of Depeche Mode. Period.
The album kicks off with Going Backwards, and continues the tradition of strong album openers. It’s also a bit of a red herring. It gives you the impression that Spirit is going to be a spiritual successor to Delta Machine due to its sound and overall feel. By the time you get halfway through the song you realize you’ve been had. As the harmonies hit and the layers are added to the song you hear Depeche Mode stepping out of the old and into the new. In fact, Spirit sounds a lot like the band paying homage to all their post-1990 work while also shedding that cocoon and spreading new wings. You can hear this in Where’s The Revolution, with all of its Violator trappings in one hand, but filtered through a bolder, older, and wiser band in the other.
The Worst Crime is probably my least favorite track on the album with its painfully slow pace. It would have fit right in with some of the dirges on Exciter, an album that I liked but did not love. The song saves itself with a strong finish but even after multiple listens I find this to be the weakest link of the album. Then, like turning the page, Scum hits with its powerful bass track. This is easily one of the most ambitious and outside the box tracks they’ve ever released. It’s vitriolic, dark, and an amazing piece of work. It’s an album highlight and shows that even 14 albums in, Depeche Mode still has tricks up their sleeve. You Move continues the new Depeche Mode direction with a dark, sultry, and oh so Dave track that is another one of my favorites. It has a hypnotic groove that is dangerously addictive, despite the darkness that encroaches throughout the song.
Cover Me slows down the pace a bit with its seaside laziness. The production on the track adds a lot of depth with a well layered outro that reminded me a lot of the way their songs used to linger on back in the 90’s. Martin makes his Spirit debut in Eternal, a classic minor-key slow burn. Don’t be lulled into thinking that this is your same old Martin interlude track though…I know I keep bringing up the production, but you can hear James Ford’s influence on the track as it builds into a brilliant crescendo. Poison Heart follows on its heels and this is surely going to be a single. It plays out like a traditional 50’s love song with a dark edge. It has an undeniable swagger to it…an attitude of self righteous reluctance to stubborn to admit the truth so it pushes on.
As we hit the home stretch of Spirit, So Much Love, which could have been an unreleased Songs of the Universe single, pushes the tempo up again. Poorman, while being lyrically poignant, is another low point for me. There’s too little variation in the sound of the song from verse to chorus the even know that you’ve left on and gone to the other. No More (This is the Last Time) rights the ship very quickly with another old meets new style Depeche Mode song. If you peel back the vocals of the track you’ve got a solid darkwave song hidden underneath. Martin closes out Spirit with one of his strongest tracks ever. Fail is a lyrical wake up call to everyone who is in denial, with bankrupt souls, and corrupt motives that are dooming us all. It’s a bold finish to an ambitious record.
Spirit is a very interesting album, and though I’m not sure yet where it stands in my overall list of Depeche Mode releases (that takes years of time), it certainly stands as their boldest to date. The album is socially aware of its surroundings and that’s already a new move for a band who has left these opinions out of most of their discography. Spirit also serves as a reconciliation with the fans that lament the loss of the “Depeche Mode” sound they love while pushing forward in new and exciting directions. Spirit is the exact album that Depeche Mode needed to release at this point in their career. It’s also very, very good.