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by Philip Sherburne

March 26, 2013

Artist Spotlight: Depeche Mode

by Philip Sherburne  |  March 26, 2013

Pop music is full of improbable success stories -- indeed, it's premised upon them -- but there are surely few superstars unlikelier than Depeche Mode. It would certainly appear that way if we could time-travel back to 1980 and watch them starting out, just four wan, skinny fellows fiddling with dinky keyboards. Yes, 33 years ago, the idea that synthesizers might one day fill stadiums seemed ludicrous. Even sneering, snotty punk, for all its antisocial qualities, had a better chance at conquering the world, given its theatricality and its roots in "real" rock 'n' roll. Synth pop, on the other hand, was almost punker than punk, requiring no knowledge whatsoever of how to play your instrument; fashioned in studios and bedrooms, it was music for loners, a music that turned its back on the world.

But Depeche Mode broke the mold. They were successful right from the outset: Their first single, "Dreaming of Me," went to No. 57 on the U.K. pop charts, and the next, "New Life," hit No. 11; Speak & Spell, their debut album, went to No. 10 on the U.K. album charts. Granted, that first album could be plenty perky, as on songs like "New Life," "Boys Say Go!" and "Tora! Tora! Tora!" But the band went darker and weirder on 1982's A Broken Frame and 1983's Construction Time Again, tempering their peppier instincts with anxious analog dirges. By 1984's Some Great Reward, they were singing about sadomasochism while prancing around in black lace lingerie, but their stateside fan base, buoyed by college radio, ballooned far beyond the clutches of goth subculture. The band's ambitions scaled up, too: 1987's Music for the Masses was anything but ironic, decked out in the drama of the American West and bolstered by sing-along anthems like "Strangelove."

Since 1990's Violator -- their first album to make the Billboard Top 10, and widely considered their best -- Depeche Mode have settled into their now-familiar trademark sound, a mixture of swaggering rock affect and wiry electronic programming. On their five subsequent albums – Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993), Ultra (1997), Exciter (2001), Playing the Angel (2005) and Sounds of the Universe (2009) -- the pendulum tends to swing back and forth between those two poles. They've long since ceased to break new ground, and often go so far as to recycle lyrical and melodic themes, but for fans of Depeche Mode's grandiose, world-beating sound, that hardly matters.

And now, they've rewarded our patience with Delta Machine, their 13th album, which elegantly folds together their bluesy preoccupations with some of the eeriest synthesizer work they've managed since their early days. It's still too early to say where, exactly, the new one will fall in the Depeche Mode canon. (For the record, the Spanish website Playground puts it at No. 11, above Exciter but below Ultra.) As any new D.M. album can be, it's a somewhat uncanny listen, recycling so many sounds and ideas that it can sound like a remix of the band's entire catalog. Even after just a few listens, it's all weirdly familiar, but the skeletal arrangements and queasy electronic frequencies also sound stranger than they have in a while. It's an album that compels you to go back to it, which is saying something for a band in its 33rd year.

To mark the album's release, we've put together a playlist of essential Depeche Mode songs from across the years; you can browse through the albums themselves, too. Long may these synth-pop kings reign.

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