Depeche Mode – ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ (Mute)
Groundbreaking, chart-topping electronic legends Depeche Mode return in April 2009 with their most dazzling and diverse album in decades. ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ finds Martin Gore, Dave Gahan and Andy ‘Fletch’ Fletcher back at the top of their game after almost 30 years together. Eclectic and energised, they sound like a band reborn. With global sales in excess of 100 million, including Number One albums and dozens of classic singles, Depeche Mode belong to a select premier league of supergroups – alongside U2, REM and Metallica – who have survived from the early 1980s with their ideals, their creative vision and their core members intact. They overcame internal friction and critical hostility to become one of the most influential bands of the post-punk era, namechecked by everyone from The Killers, MGMT, Coldplay, Pet Shop Boys and Marilyn Manson.
‘Sounds Of The Universe’ is Depeche Mode’s latest forward-thinking masterpiece, a Violator for the 21st century. Lyrically, it contains many of the band’s enduring obsessions – lust, spirituality, romantic yearning, sinful temptation and sadomasochism – plus more overt black humour than any of their previous albums.
Musically, ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ will please fans of every age and taste. From Dave’s overlord chant on the mighty first single Wrong to Martin’s velvet-lined Scott Walker croon on the sensual lounge-music ballad Jezebel, and from the sci-fi gospel-blues hymn In Chains to the sleazy electronic glam-rock stomp Corrupt, this is a classic Depeche Mode album.
As they approach their 30th anniversary, Depeche Mode are on a personal and musical high. Old tensions have been resolved, hatchets buried and bad habits conquered. Recorded in Santa Barbara and New York, ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ was born from positive creative chemistry, and it really shows.
“It’s a tremendous record, just to blow our own trumpet,” laughs Dave. “We’ve had the luxury this time of recording a lot more songs than we really need, all of which have been of great quality.” “All of us have had a really good time being together,” says Martin. “The overall atmosphere in the studio has been fantastic. Very few issues. We were very focussed.”
“The overriding thrust of the album is the number of high quality songs,” Andy agrees. “Martin’s been writing really prolifically, to a high standard. We’ve recorded about 20 songs, which is pretty good for Depeche Mode. We’re even doing a deluxe version of the album with about 17 or 18 tracks, including old demos from current and previous albums.”
The album title ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ has various meanings, from its spiritual subtext to its retro-futuristic arrangements. “We’ve used a lot of old analogue synthesisers and drum machines, which conjure up image of the universe and space travel somehow,” Martin explains. “We’ve gone back to a lot of old vintage gear, without making the album sound too retro. It’s like yesterday’s future. That’s why for me it’s a perfect album title.”
‘Sounds Of The Universe’ marks a reunion between Depeche Mode and Ben Hillier, who previously produced their 2005 album Playing The Angel. A gifted all-rounder who has worked with full orchestras and rock bands, Hillier gave the album a timeless sound palette blending vintage bleeps and beats with contemporary electronic textures. “We all felt it would be stupid not to work with Ben again,” says Martin. “He’s just one of those people who puts his mind to something and becomes instantly professional at it. He’s also quite forceful. That’s important for us, at this stage of our career, to have someone willing to stick their neck out and disagree with us.“
Like Playing The Angel, ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ features writing credits for both Martin and Dave. After honing his talents on two solo albums, Dave has earned his place as Depeche Mode’s second songwriter. “The fact that Dave has started writing songs has done a lot of good for the band because his confidence is much higher now,” says Andy. “He feels a lot more attached to the band because of that.”
In fact, ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ is the closest collaboration yet between Depeche Mode’s two main songwriters. Martin and Dave share vocals on several songs and they have even co-written one track on this record. It felt like “a true partnership”, says Dave. “I think in a blind test people would find it difficult to tell who wrote which songs,” adds Martin.
The first single from the album, Wrong grabs the listener’s attention from its first stack-heeled, staccato shriek. Over stomping beats and screeching synthesisers, Dave hammers out Martin’s darkly comic reflections on a lifetime of mistakes, misdeeds and bad decisions. Instantly addictive, Wrong clearly has a guaranteed future as a skypunching stadium anthem. It already feels like a Depeche Mode classic.
“We decided at a fairly early stage that we wanted Wrong to be the first single, because it’s quite different to anything we’ve released before,” says Martin. “I don’t know quite what category to put it in musically, but it’s got a kind of rap feel to it. It’s probably as close to R&B as we’re ever going to sound.”
For Martin, another album highlight is Peace, with its sublime technogospel arrangement and cascading choral refrain. It was written back to back with Footprint, a seductive whirl of warped fairground pop, which became a kind of nocturnal sister song to Peace.
“Both those songs had a spiritual element to them, and to me that formed a sort of cornerstone to the album,” Martin explains. “We’ve had spiritual references on previous records, but I think with this one it’s a little more obvious.”
Dave’s contributions to ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ were written with his regular composing partners, Andrew Philpott and Christian Eigner, Depeche Mode’s live drummer. One of their stand-out collaborations is Come Back, the dirtiest and rowdiest rocker on the album. “I wanted to take it away from being a straight ballad,” says Dave, “with a feel beneath it that was kind of My Bloody Valentine or Jesus and Mary Chain. A big lush sound with this droning wall of noise underneath. Martin did some fantastic backing vocals for that.” Another of the singer’s dirty confessionals, Hole To Feed marries modern electronics to a floor-shaking, bone-rattling Bo Diddley beat. The lyric, a blend of rock-star swagger and tender yearning, is vintage Dave Gahan.
“Lyrically, I’m just being my usual cynical self,” Dave laughs. “I’m the man who has everything but I’m still just poking around in that little hole that feels empty, wondering what I can fill it with.”
In keeping with tradition, Anton Corbijn again provides the striking sleeve design and band photos for ‘Sounds Of The Universe’. Now an acclaimed film director with his Joy Division biopic Control, the “Dutch Master” has been Depeche Mode’s chief visual consultant for over 20 years.
“It was difficult to get him this time,” Andy laughs. “Now he’s won all these awards as film director it was very hard to tie him down for an album cover. But yes, Anton’s still involved, he’s very important to Depeche Mode.”
The band is set to go on a mammoth global jaunt opening on May 10 with 28 stadium concerts across the Middle East and Europe. Further legs of the tour will include the US and throughout South America. “We played Mexico on the last tour and it was amazingly successful,” Martin recalls. “We did two nights in Mexico City to 50,000 people each night. Knowing how popular we are out there, we’re expecting a similar reaction this time – we all felt we neglected South America on the last tour, so we decided to put that right.”
For a band with such a long and successful history, selecting the set list for the tour is a major task. Around 230 possible Depeche Mode classics need to be honed into a 20-song concert. “Every time we tour now the set list becomes a real nightmare,” says Andy. “Because we’re a democracy, it’s like the Eurovision Song Contest, voting individually for each song. But it’s not such a bad problem to have.”
Public response to the Tour of the Universe has been phenomenal, with many European stadium shows selling out almost immediately. “The touring thing is where it all makes sense for me,” nods Dave. “Once the fans are there, there’s always that feeling underneath Depeche Mode’s music of wanting to be part of something, and there are a lot of people out there who feel the same.”
Ultimately, all three members of Depeche Mode pay tribute to the loyal army of fans who have supported them for almost 30 years. Their devotion is what makes forward-thinking albums like ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ possible, and their excitement is what makes Depeche Mode tours such electrifying spectacles.
“We’ve been blessed over the years by our audience,” says Martin. “We have the craziest, most loyal fans of any band I know. People who think Depeche Mode are doomy should just come and see one of our concerts and see how the audience react. The shows are just an amazing high, everybody’s there to have a good time.”
In 2009, Depeche Mode are unstoppable. Get ready for the album of the year from the biggest, brightest, best band in the Universe.