Nobody communicates anxiety quite like Depeche Mode. The moody intensity they bring to their music, especially in these past few albums, is chilling and magnificent, hurt and liberated. They are wounded, fragile and aching, but they’re intensely, furiously alive, and they’re not going to let their disgruntlement go away quietly. Spirit, their 14th studio album, finds the nearly-40-year-old English electronic band reinvigorated and refurbished, jaded but nevertheless inspired. These times are insane and exhausting, but Depeche Mode won’t let their itching terrors get the better of them.
Like many bands trying to rejuvenate themselves around after several decades in the business, Spirit has the nasty habit of feeling repetitive and slightly mechanical. The more solemn approach, coupled with their humorless outlook on modern events, is not going to strike the same feverish enthusiasm as, say, “Personal Jesus.” But they’re not here to play nice; instead, they’re here to start up the revolution, and they don’t have any desire to win over those who don’t agree with their passionate call for action. It’s an album filled with urgency and necessity, which makes the middling execution more than a little disappointing. It’s not a bad album; it’s well-produced and well-complied. But it doesn’t necessarily grab you, shock you, or astound you like Depeche Mode once did before. These gentlemen are older, duller, no less invigorated but not quite quick.
The gritty rock approach is sometimes powerful and occasionally muddy. Only “No More (This is the Last Time),” found in the second half of the album, truly captures the catchy infectiousness of the band’s earlier, better work. The opening title, “Going Backwards,” is expectedly thoughtful and sometimes blatantly telling. But, again, it doesn’t quite cut past the skin. Colorfully titled tracks like “Scum,” “The Worst Crime” and “Where’s the Revolution” sound promising, but they don’t impress like they should. And yet, there are no distinctly bad singles. They all work at least perfectly fine, and they communicate their messages vigorously and bluntly, but something is missing. It’s not at its optimal high point. Call it age. Call it repetition. Whatever it is, it’s sadly off.
But Depeche Mode, even at their somewhat middling, still know how to be effective. And that’s key. The more straightforward approach — not showing many signs of satire or any moments of lightheartedness — is a meaningful album, and that’s not taken lightly. “Spirit” is a brutal, extended and uncompromising collection, and that’s felt. Depeche Mode has a lot of its mind, and they will make you feel the winds of change. It’s not a swift blow, but it’s never a breezy one either. Depeche Mode is its own current.
Downplayed yet urgent, heartbroken but deeply political, Spirit is Depeche Mode at their bleakest and most serious, and that’s something to celebrate and to mourn. Filled with fire and ice, the band isn’t getting any younger, so they’re going to be heard today. Whether their message resonates is certainly unclear, but they’re not done playing yet. Like the title suggests, Spirit is an animal that’s filled with vigor and swift momentum, and it’ll be damned if you don’t feel its burning. Depeche Mode is, of course, in the now. Call them a ’80s band on your own time. Even with four decades under their belt, they’re still in the moment, in the seemingly endless now. That won’t be changing soon. Because the revolution is now. You either are with them or against them. Pick wisely.