This is the album Depeche Mode seemed destined never to make. Their last two were recorded in the teeth of Dave Gahan’s near-fatal drug addiction, with band relations strained to snapping point and their electronic agenda buried under a mudslide of riffs, resentment and rehab.
But the U2 of synth-pop emerge from their blustery rock fixation renewed vitality here. Producer Mark Bell, of LFO and Björk repute, has coaxed a kind of electro-acoustic mix from the Mode which puts clear blue water between ‘Exciter’ and their most recent experiments in techno-grunge and Wagnerian trip-hop. The texture of tracks like ‘Dream On’ and ‘Comatose’ are high-tech yet organic, couching almost folkish guitar strumming in stomach-rumbling electronica.
From this solid base, Gore’s songwriting is free to veer off into diverse and occasionally sublime directions. Hence the cheekily titled pop trifle ‘I Feel Loved’, a blast of shameless disco hedonism with a side order of existential ennui. More impressive is the cinematic ‘Easy Tiger’, which throbs and whirrs with a post-rock John Barry feel that wouldn’t feel out of place on ‘Kid A’. But the most hilarious diversion here is goth-metal stomper ‘The Dead Of Night’, a rampaging Godzilla of sci-fi glam-rock which sounds like a Panzer division invading a Marilyn Manson gig.
Gahan’s voice has never sounded this rich, and expressive. His usual stern histrionics have been largely replaced by tenderness and restraint, most notably on the string-kissed Bono-esque reverie ‘When The Body Speaks’ – described by Gore as “the Righteous Brothers playing next door to a rave” – and the serenade ‘Shine’. But better still is beatific closing number ‘Goodnight Lovers’, where Dave purrs and whispers over a gliding ambient lullaby to “all soul sisters and soul brothers”. This is the one to soften even hardened Mode-haters, a gorgeous moment of sensual healing.
As ever, Gore’s lyrics address love as suffocating sickness, addiction as pleasure, sexual longing as psychosis – although the clammy cold turkey references in tumbling doom-waltz ‘The Sweetest Condition’ pack a special resonance in the wake of Gahan’s chemical travails.
Lyrical gloom aside, though, ‘Exciter’ sounds like a band not just revitalised but reassembled from scratch. Not many long-running groups could make an album this fresh and confident in their 20th year, never mind one which bridges timeless soulman crooning and underground techno. If we still need serious grown-up bands in these atomised, scrambled, pop-crazed times, then we still need Depeche Mode.