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Not-just-album review: Depeche Mode: [No] Delta Machine

July 22, 2013

Did you know that Depeche Mode released a new album in 2013? In an era when it seems like every late ’80s and early ‘90s band is doing some sort of reunion or anniversary tour,[1] Depeche just keeps on chugging. The band, like their contemporaries making the reunion/anniversary rounds, peaked in the early ’90s, specifically 1990-91 when their album Violator – especially singles “Enjoy the Silence” and “Personal Jesus” – was the biggest thing to hit alternative music. Their “World Violation Tour” sold out huge stadiums and attracted more than a million fans worldwide before all was said and done. As often happens, filled with their own hubris (understandably so), Depeche Mode followed up Violator with a very different sounding album, 1993’s dark, grunge-influenced Songs of Faith and Devotion. Expecting to surpass their Violator peak, they supported this album with another world tour (this one lasting over a year), a concert film directed by Anton Corbijn, and a live CD consisting of the exact same songs released later that year (Songs of Faith and Devotion Live). Q magazine listed 1993’s “Devotional Tour” as “The Most Debauched Rock’n’Roll Tour Ever.” Meanwhile, despite all this success, the wheels were falling off. Chief songwriter, keyboardist and guitarist Martin Gore experienced seizures on tour and Andy Fletcher declined to participate in the latter stages of the tour due to “mental instability.” Band member Alan Wilder quit the group just after the tour, while singer Dave Gahan’s heroin addiction was getting ever worse, with a near-fatal overdose coming at a hotel in Los Angeles. Songs of Faith and Devotion may have debuted at number one in both the UK and the US, but the overwhelming consensus was that it was nowhere near the album that Violator was.  By late 1995, all signs pointed to Depeche Mode breaking up. It was simply the cycle of a band’s life. Maybe one day they would reunite and cash in; in hindsight, their inevitable 2011 reunion and 20th anniversary Violator Tour would seem pre-ordained. Against all odds, that’s not the path Depeche Mode followed.

In 1997 the band released their ninth studio album, Ultra. In 2001 they released their 10th, Exciter. And thus began the pattern. Four years later they would release Playing the Angel, another four years after that Sounds of the Universe and in 2013, like clockwork, Delta Machine. Instead of breaking up 20 years ago, Depeche Mode album releases have become as reliably predictable as presidential elections and summer Olympics.  You’ll be forgiven though if you weren’t aware of some, if not all of these albums. For the most part, the band hasn’t produced anything of note since their last big hurrah in 1993. The most interesting aspect of this fact though is that Depeche Mode knows it. Their current tour, in support of Delta Machine, is representative of every tour they’ve done since the “Devotional Tour.” Other than songs from the new album, the setlist consists almost entirely of songs from the band’s first 12 years. Of the 32 shows to date, nine songs were played at every show, only one of which was post-’93 and not off of Delta Machine.[2] Need further proof? 2009-10’s “Tour of the Universe” consisted of a whopping 102 shows, with 13 songs played at all 102. Only two of those 13 were post-’93 and not off of Sounds of the Universe. With five albums since 1993, that’s a lot of dead material. Depeche is essentially a nostalgia act that never went away. As a result, hardly anyone is lining up to purchase their new record or see them on their latest tour. Not now, not four years ago, not four years form now.

Even without breaking up – even without taking a single break from touring or recording in the band’s long history – it didn’t have to be this way. There is another band that formed in the 1980’s, peaked in the 1990’s (albeit a little after Depeche), and never stopped pumping out new music. Radiohead, however, remains relevant to this day. Their most recent album, 2011’s The King of Limbs, was both critically well-received (nominated for five Grammys) and commercially successful; it debuted at number six on the Billboard 200 in the US and at number 7 on the UK charts, despite the fact that the album was released for digital sale two months earlier on the Radiohead website, selling over 300,000 copies there.[3] Similarly, each of the band’s albums after their back to back smash hits, 1995’s The Bends and 1997’s OK Computer, was either a commercial or critical successes (or both) and a buzzed-about event.  Lead singer Thom Yorke still routinely appears on the cover of magazines. Radiohead is still a band that matters.

Of course, just as one could imagine a parallel world where Depeche Mode broke up after Songs of Faith and Devotion and reunited for a Violator anniversary tour, it’s easy to imagine a world where Radiohead put out a slightly sub-par guitar-heavy album post-OK Computer, cashed out with a huge world tour and then broke up, only to reunite for The Bends 20th anniversary tour in 2015.[4] The slightly sub-par guitar-heavy post-OK Computer album never came though. Radiohead didn’t follow the path of most of their contemporaries and break up, nor did they overstay their welcome along the lines of Depeche Mode or their Brit-pop brethren Oasis. They stayed relevant by radically changing their sound, starting with 2000’s Kid A. On Kid A, Radiohead ditched the three-guitar line-up for a much more electronic sound, producing something that sounded nothing like The Bends or OK Computer. The band was taking a huge chance; they risked alienating their fans and the critics at a time when they were at their absolute peak popularity (and arguably the most popular “alternative” band around). Kid A went platinum in its first week of release in the UK. It became the first Radiohead release to debut at number one in the US. Of course, those positive initial results could have been attributed to a halo effect from The Bends or OK Computer, but over a decade later the album has sold over four million copies worldwide. Pitchfork and Rolling Stone – two entities that never agree on anything – both named it the number one album of the decade. Radiohead continued their evolution throughout the 2000s, continually changing their sound, leaving their label, becoming more politically-minded, focusing on new distribution models and just plain being different. Their changes aren’t necessarily radical – at no point did the band make any dramatic shifts other than the one from OK Computer to Kid A. But they are always pushing the needle forward in some direction, whether musically, artistically, commercially or politically.

By contrast, every Depeche Mode song from the past five albums, including those on Delta Machine, sound like a poor man’s version of their far better music from 1981-93. “Delta Machine” then is perhaps an ironic title – “delta” means change, and Depeche Mode is a machine that never changes. Don’t take my word for it though; read one of most amusing album reviews I’ve ever come across. Some choice quotes from Douglas Wolk‘s review showing his exasperation with Depeche Mode:

Since [Songs of Faith and Devotion in 1993], they’ve been on a steady regimen of releasing a studio record every fourth year, followed by a tour where they play a whole lot of songs from the era when Designing Women was on the air.

And:

Delta Machine, like Playing the Angel and Sounds of the Universe before it, was produced by Ben Hillier, includes three songs with lyrics by Gahan, and sounds like it could be a set of outtakes from Songs of Faith and Devotion. The word “soul” appears in five of Gore’s songs here, not including “Angel” or “Heaven” (which shouldn’t be confused with the earlier “Halo” or “Judas” or “Sacred” or “Jezebel” or “Martyr”).

And rather than describe everything I felt while listening to it Delta Machine, why not let Wolk take us home?

Still, what made Depeche Mode work, when they worked, wasn’t just the contrast between Gore’s dry detachment and Gahan’s dorky innocence (up to, let’s say, Music for the Masses) and the late-breaking badassery that replaced it (from Violator onward). It was their constant pushing forward of their sound– expanding the vocabulary of what electronics could do in pop songs. […] They made rules for themselves, which made it more fun when they broke them. But they stopped pushing forward long ago, and now they don’t even bother pretending technology has opened up any possibilities for recorded sound in the past 20 years. Now they’re just extruding a new album once in a while, reconfiguring the grooves and keywords of the albums from the period when they were a force in pop, without the push toward new noises and uncertain feelings that made that music powerful. There is not a single moment of shock or freshness on Delta Machine, and it’s enormously frustrating to hear what was once a band of futurists so deeply mired in resisting change.

So if you’re thinking of going out and buying Delta Machine – or even giving it an hour of your time after a free download – why not spend your time and money more wisely and just listen to Music for the Masses? Or better yet, The King of Limbs. You may not love it, but at least you haven’t heard it before only better.


[1] Just off the top of my head, here is a list of bands that in the past few years either reunited to tour or did an “anniversary” tour of an old record: Pixies, Breeders, Dinosaur Jr., Replacements, Mudhoney, Nine Inch Nails, Jane’s Addiction, Blink-182, Sublime (kind of), the Postal Service, OMD, Squeeze, Duran Duran, Backstreet Boys, Hootie & the Blowfish …

[2] Five more songs were played at all but one show. Again, all but one was either from ’81-’93 or from Delta Machine.

[3] Those chart positions are low for a Radiohead release, but the impact of the direct sale should not be underestimated. As their co-manager told Rolling Stone, “Financially, it was probably the most successful record they’ve ever made, or pretty close. In a traditional deal, the record company takes the majority of the money.”

[4] If that had happened, I don’t know what my personal spending limit would have been for tickets to see Radiohead at the Barclays Center in 2015, performing music from their three first (and in that case only) albums. Let’s just leave it at “a lot.”

From → Music

10 Comments
  1. Did you even listen to “Delta Machine” before doing this review? You spent half the review talking about “King of Limbs.” Hardly anyone lined up to buy their record or see DM on tour, huh? Where do you get your information? Depeche Mode’s 2005-2006 tour to support “Playing the Angel” was one of the most successful, highest-grossing tours that year. Depeche Mode typically sells 99% of their concert tickets for every tour, even the recent ones and in large arenas & stadiums. Their 2009 “Tour of the Universe” was in the top 20 highest grossing tours that year. Thirteen European shows from that tour grossed nearly $12 million and drew more than 165,000 people. To support “Delta Machine,” Depeche Mode embarked on the 9th highest grossing tour of 2013, grossing $120 million. Add in their 2014 dates, and the Delta Machine Tour grossed nearly $150 million. They may not sell the same amount of albums as they did in the 90’s, but those were the days when people actually went into record stores to buy their music. The music business is a completely different animal now. And I’m sure all those bands from the 80’s & 90’s who went out on a reunion/anniversary tour recently WISH they had Depeche Mode’s career.

    So cut the crap about Depeche Mode being irrelevant and not up to par with Radiohead. Since when is Radiohead Depeche Mode’s competition? Since when do music fans have to choose between listening to Radiohead or listening to Depeche Mode? Thom Yorke’s been on lots of magazine covers, huh? Good for him. Does that make his music relevant, posing for photographs? I’m sure while he’s standing around two years from now posing for a photographer to get the cover of some UK music magazine, David Gahan & Martin Gore will be in the studio writing new music.

    • Yes, I listened to Delta Machine many times before writing this review.

      Nearly your entire response focused on one sentence of my review, citing statistics about ticket sales. Very clearly my piece was about the band’s relevance post-1995, not their gross sales. My commentary was about the music, the lack of change in it over the years, the lack of anything critically important. Depeche Mode used to stand for innovation – now it’s just same old, same old. That was my point. I’m sorry you missed that. Perhaps I should have been clearer – I’m still a very amateur writer. I do think it was very well researched and thought out, full of qualitative and quantitative information to support my point. Perhaps it was the point that wasn’t clear.

      I appreciate that you love Depeche including their last 20 years of output. In that sense I think your view may be biased and in the minority, but devoted fans are what music is all about. As for the radiohead stuff – that’sy style, to compare and contrast. To have people think a little unconventionally (I agree they’re not an obvious point of comparison, but I think I made the case that they’re a good one.) Maybe my style is not for you. Either way, I appreciate you reading and commenting.

      All the best, thanks again for the feedback.

    • Oh, and I HATED King of Limbs!

      • Lol if you hated The King of Limbs, why did you tell your readers to listen to it instead? The thing with Depeche Mode fans, is that it’s a mixed bag. Sure their concerts will be full of older fans who were around for DM’s peak in the late 80’s/early 90’s and want to hear the old hits. But they’re also getting teenagers at their shows. They still get new fans every time they put out a new album. Yeah, their new albums haven’t had massive hits but I wouldn’t say they’re just churning out the same old stuff over and over again. Each album since SOFAD has a completely different mood to it, both lyrically and sonically. Their music never even got nominated for a Grammy until 2006. If Depeche Mode was a band that just recycled old stuff and their tours focused on re-hashing the big hits and glory days of old, I don’t see how they would still be attracting 16 yr olds to their concerts.

        Electronic music and sampling is no longer new and on the cutting edge. There is so much of it now. So while Depeche Mode were once deemed as futurists when electronic music was brand new, you have to admit that it’d be hard for a band that’s been around for 30+ years to come up with a new sound that isn’t like anything they’ve done before or isn’t like anything any other artist has done. Electronic music is now so widespread. Regardless of how many records they sell or whether they’ll ever write an album that is more perfect than Violator (they won’t), they’re still to this day one of the best bands you could ever see live. They sell more concert tickets than albums, and coming from a band that’s sold 100 million records, that’s saying a lot. But it’s always been that way over almost their entire career, at least here in America.

      • Agree to disagree I guess … I’ve listened to all their music from the first album to the last, many many times (though admittedly the last 3 albums much fewer times) and I just don’t hear what you do. That illustrated by the fact that when Sounds of the Universe and Delta Machine came out, I wasn’t excited at all. I’d already given up hope for anything interesting after Ultra, Exciter, and Playing the Angel. Those 5 albums might as well be one super-deluxe album as far as I’m concerned. Nothing distinguishes one from the other. At least not to my ear.

        It’s not that Depeche is now bad – it’s just that I find them bland, formulaic. After 30+ years you might be right – they’re entitled to coast on a specific sound that people, including new listeners, like. But filling arenas with 16 year olds doesn’t prove to me that they’re now making great, over even good music. If that was my standard I’d be listening to iggy azalea.

  2. Matt permalink

    Your numbers for Radioheads last album are hardly better than Depeche Modes. Sounds of the Universe debuted at Number 3 in America and was nominated for a Grammy. Delta Machine debuted at #6 and sold over 60,000 copies in its first week. Playing the Angel I believe debuted at #5 and has since sold well over 300,000 copies and most would agree it was there best work since those early 90’s albums. Get your facts straight.

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