People I haven’t seen in years were messaging me about the new Depeche Mode album, Delta Machine (2013), because it made them think of me–perhaps because in high school I kind of defined myself with my Violator (1990) t-shirt and pansexual pose as the personal Jesus of anyone who dared to reach out and touch, well, me (few did… remember, I was also a hopeless nerd).
“In Your Room” and a couple of other tracks from Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993) inspired a few erotic fantasies, Ultra (1997) was good but not really DM-worthy, and Exciter (2001) didn’t live up to its name. Things were looking grim until the revelation that was Playing the Angel (2005), when the band seemed to recognize what it was–the most important leader in electronic music of the 80s and 90s–and seized the opportunity to create a dialogue with its early self in order to build a bridge into the early 21st century, something the band’s many progeny have tried and failed to do.
I have more to say about how the band has spanned the decades, and how Delta Machine comes close to being the band’s summa theologica that I’ve been praying for since they started reflecting on the art of playing at angelic maneuvers in the dark, but first let me just comment on that one album, Playing the Angel, one of the best alt-rock albums of the last decade. I’ll sum it up in two singles, “John the Revelator” and “Precious.” Both of these songs, and arguably the album as a whole, are answers to Violator, the apex of their career. On Violator, the song “Personal Jesus,” like many a bridge over troubled water, urges us to reach out and touch faith, and it could be about sex, drugs, religion, or all of the above. Similarly, “John the Revelator” has all the same resonances, as John could take us “up to the highest high,” but we’re also putting the Revelator on trial, letting him tell his “book of lies.” The music, while just as pounding, is almost exhausting–an addiction or fanaticism run itself dry. “Precious,” on the other hand, is the later album’s answer to Violator‘s “Enjoy the Silence.” Instead of telling us words are “like violence,” “Precious” tells us that “words left unspoken” leave us “brittle.” While both “Enjoy the Silence” and “Precious” are somber and trance-like, “Precious” borders on a dirge. Playing the angel is playing at wisdom, and it’s fucking beautiful.
Now then, I will devote a paragraph to the larger career of this longest-lasting of bands (ironically named after fleeting fashions), and then I will focus on their most recent accomplishment as a summa. When they began, they pioneered synth-pop with a kind of Marxist bubblegum aesthetic. I say bubblegum in that some of their synth riffs are so pop that one of my favorite early songs, “See You” (1982), sounds eerily like “And Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals (1963). More importantly, I say Marxist not just because teen-gay me had pictures of adorable Dave Gahan and Martin Gore in hard hats and suspenders sans shirts on his wall, but because lyrics to showstopper “Everything Counts” (1983) include “The handshake/seals the contract/from the contract/there’s no turning back.” And of course, “People are People” (1984): “So we’re different colors / and we’re different creeds/ and different people have different needs.” “Lie to Me” (1984): “Lie to me / like they do it at the factory / make me think that at the end of the day / some great reward will be coming my way.” People might be tempted to say that a big turn came in their career with the album Black Celebration (1986), which, as the title suggests, is when they turned quite Goth, and both music and lyrics became more dark, erotic, and introspective. However, just before, on Some Great Reward (1984), which gave us “Lie to Me” and reminded us (again) that “People are People” (the album of that name was released a few months earlier) we hear “Master and Servant,” the wonderfully sexual song that was also purely Hegelian, a fusion of sex and class critique: “It’s a lot like life… let’s play master and servant… in bed or in life/they’re both just the same/except in one you’re fulfilled/at the end of the day.” All the dark, brooding, self-indulgent sex-drugs-religion stuff that came after Black Celebration continues to be a lot like life, in that fulfilling self-indulgence continues to be a product of capitalist exhortations to hyperconsumerism and investments in fleeting fashion (which is what “depeche mode” means in French).
But Depeche Mode never forgot its original politics. They followed Black Celebration with their appropriately named stadium-tour supported album Music for the Masses (1987), which I have always read as a lyrical chronicle of adolescent discovery and eventual alienation culminating in the discovery that pleasure is the little treasure that, like playing master and servant, is the great reward awaiting us at the end a hard day of working at a thankless factory job (or its equally dehumanizing white collar equivalent).
So, now I have chronicled the troubled later phase of DM’s career, saved by Playing the Angel (and not hampered by the inferior but still good Sounds of the Universe, 2009) and then rewound through the Marxist bubblegum progression that brought them to this phase. Finally, to the point: their latest release, Delta Machine, the DM initialization of which receives bold emphasis in the album artwork. It’s the closest they’ve come to a self-titled album. Is Depeche Mode the Delta Machine? Is Delta Machine Depeche Mode’s manifesto? The opening track is called “Welcome to My World.” The temptation, folks, is powerful.
The trouble, however, as many of the album’s critics have noted, is the lyrics. They’re fairly generic–they continue to do that DM thing, mixing metaphors of sex and drugs and religion (track titles include “Angel” and “Heaven”), with very little direct room for reading in politics, which would seem to reinforce arguments suggesting that late DM left behind the commitments of early DM. I don’t think so, though, for two reasons. The first, less important reason, is a turn in lyrical trends that occurs (in the deluxe version, at least, which includes some extra tracks). In “Always,” the lyrics continue to be about intimate relationships, but they emphasize a need to “fight”–indeed, the song repeats that word “fight” many, many times. The final track, “All That’s Mine,” emphasizes that the speaker has lost himself. If “Master and Servant” is correct, and bed and life are the same, then the need to fight in relationships and the feeling of being lost in relationships are both comparable to the need to fight in social relations and the feeling of being lost in the field of social relations. And in 2013, what are we but lost in contradictory political rhetorics and economic helplessness? What do we feel but a need to fight, but we don’t know what, how, or whom?
But the strongest argument I have here is the music, which is really the Delta Machine. While recent DM has intriguingly continued to experiment with guitar riffs, the absence of which helped to define them in 80s, and post-Violator bluesy qualities continue to stand out as a pleasing contrast to up-tempo dance drives, this album is perhaps the most mechanical they have produced since Violator. Delta sounds are the sounds of sleep or, more profoundly, meditation and spirituality, so a delta machine in music is a mechanized production of sound engineered to create a spiritual response. It is, in this sense, a paradox–a machine with a soul. In that way, it is like Depeche Mode on multiple levels. Depeche Mode as Marxist pop embraced industrial sounds to raise consciousness about exploitations of industrialization. And Depeche Mode also named themselves after fleeting fashion and became a decades-spanning shaper of musical trends, an influencer of bands that have come and gone for decades while Depeche Mode themselves were anything but fleeting. So yes, Depeche Mode is the Delta Machine. I’m not willing to say that this album is the summa in that it’s the best they can do. It’s damned good, but I’m not willing to say it’s the end. But that’s just because they continue to wow me with seeming to be at the end of a talent that keeps coming back. Delta Machine might beg to differ, however, depending on how we take this lyric from the song “Secret to the End”:
It seems to obvious to you
You’re feeling what I’m feeling too
The final chapter in the contract expires soon
We’ve come to the end