All through junior high and high school, I was a huge fan of Depeche Mode. Like a lot of American Depeche Mode fans, I discovered the band when “People Are People” became a moderate hit in 1984, and quickly delved into the band’s roots with the follow-up compilation Catching Up With Depeche Mode, devouring everything from the early, Vince Clarke-led electro pop to the then-current dark, moody, and controversial “Blasphemous Rumors” and “Master And Servant.” For me, the band hit their prime with the one-two punch of 1996’s darkwave touchstone, Black Celebration, and the slightly more upbeat but no less powerful 1997 follow-up, Music For the Masses. From that point on, I didn’t miss an album, picking up 1989’s double-live 101 and 1990’s commercial breakthrough, Violator, within days of their release, and finally seeing the band live that same year.
When 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion hit stores, I was there on opening day. But it was there that the band lost me. I was disappointed with the band’s sudden shift into wanna be rock stardom, and while the lead single, “I Feel You,” was pretty listenable, the rest of the album was muddled, and I quickly tuned out. No surprise to me, then, that Alan Wilder soon left the group, and Dave Gahan’s drug and depression problems soon came to light (which may explain the lackluster quality of that album). And despite a four year layoff, those problems still overshadowed the release of 1997’s Ultra, which didn’t even show up on my radar.
So when Exciter, the band’s newest album, showed up in the office, I grabbed it with the intention of throwing it on just to see what was up, and fully expecting to be bored and end up passing it on to another writer. Quickly, those thoughts went out the window, and I was thrilled to find that Exciter is a refreshing and much-needed return to form for Depeche Mode. Eschewing the “big rock”-isms of Faith and Devotion, neither does Exciter directly hearken back to the classic era of Black Celebration and Music For the Masses. Rather, Exciter sounds like a natural progression of where you’d expect Depeche Mode to be a few years down the line from those albums, had all the ensuing problems and disappointments not cropped up.
Take, for example, the lead track. “Dream On,” with its tasteful acoustic guitars contrasting nicely with typically Depeche moody electronics. Bringing to mind classic tracks like “A Question of Lust” and “Somebody” without ever resorting to simple rehashing. Similarly, the electronic heartbeat of the atmospheric “When the Body Speaks” brings to mind “Blasphemous Rumors,” but the band builds on those roots with a guitar line that wouldn’t be out of place in one of U2’s quieter tunes, and lush, orchestral strings. Similarly, “Shine,” “The Sweetest Condition,” “Freelove,” and “Breathe” all recall past glories, but never become simple nostalgia trips. “The Dead of Night,” meanwhile, is what a Depeche Mode version of “big rock” should have sounded like, with a heavy industrial feel matching Dave Gahan’s dramatic vocals and “People Are People”-era electronic clankings.
The biggest departure, then, ends up being in the two short instrumental pieces, “Lovetheme” and “Easy Tiger.” Both are very lush and cinematic, and show just how much inspiration a lot of modern film scores have taken from Depeche Mode. With this as an example, I’d love to see songwriter Martin Gore try his hand at scoring an entire film; the tracks leave little doubt that he’d be quite adept at it.
In the final analysis, Exciter is quite aptly titled. I haven’t been this excited about Depeche Mode in close to a decade. Perhaps it takes the valley of 1993-2000 to really appreciate the new peaks they’ve reached in 2001, but I, for one, and just glad that period is over, and that Depeche Mode is back where they belong. A “Black Celebration” is indeed in order•