Several bad things happen to bands when they start playing stadiums, but the worst of all is that they start making music to play in stadiums. So much of Depeche Mode’s post-Violator work, particularly since the underrated Alan Wilder left in 1995, has been loud, plodding, unsubtle electro-rock, perfect for the stadiums of California, Eastern Europe and Latin America, but not much fun to listen to – I doubt even the most rabid DM fan (as I was in my youth) could hum anything off Sounds of the Universe or Delta Machine.
Spirit may not quite be the return to form old-school Mode diehards have been waiting for, but it’s the freshest-sounding thing they’ve made in a long long time. James Ford (Simian Mobile Disco) does a punchy, crunchy production job, the music is refreshingly bleepy (informed one assumes by Martin Gore’s work with Vince Clarke as VCMG), the lyrics fired with anger at the current state of the world, the running times kept largely under 4 minutes.
First single ‘Where’s the Revolution’ is a statement of intent, all throbbing bass synth, stomping glam-pop and an anthemic chorus, albeit one undone by an unfortunate lyric – “Come on people, you’re letting me down” implies that we should all be out there rioting on the streets on DM’s behalf and they’re haughtily disappointed that we’re not. It’s the kind of Bono like multi-millionaire rock star hectoring they’ve always gone out of their way to avoid. But it’s a cracking way to announce your return and – crucially – I can sing it in the shower.
And, unlike the false alarm of 2009’s ‘Wrong’, there’s plenty more where ‘Revolution’ came from. The sparkly, catchy ‘Scum’, with its chorus of “PULL THE TRIGGER!” may be one of Gahan’s post-junk self-loathing songs, or it may be an attack on the gun-totin’ American right, but either way it’s the most fired-up thing they’ve done in ages. The slinky ‘You Move’ shows that, despite being well into their 50s, the Mode can still perv it up with the best of them and aren’t ready to put the gimp masks up in the attic just yet. The pulsing krautrock/techno-pop of ‘So Much Love’ marks the first time in over 25 years that you can detect a line back to Kraftwerk and reminds you how much better they are when they ditch the stadium anthems and remember what a great singles band they used to be. And in the Gahan-penned ‘Cover Me’, they’ve produced one of the greatest songs of their career: a beautifully-sung electro ballad with echoes of Badalamenti and Morricone, it truly takes flight on its second chorus – “Way up here in the Northern Lights, beyond these broken bars/I pictured us in another life, where we’re all superstars” – before drifting off into space on its glorious two-minute electronic coda.
These tracks set a pretty high bar and sadly the rest of the album doesn’t quite reach it. ‘The Worst Crime’, an account of a lynching, boasts the unfortunate lyric “We’re setting up the truss”, which brings to mind the image of someone being strangled with a surgical stocking. ‘Eternal’ is further evidence, were it needed after the last few albums, that Gore really should leave vocal duties to Gahan. ‘Poison Heart’ and ‘Poorman’ are the kind of blues/gospel plods that you really wish they’d grown out of by now – yes, ‘Condemnation’ was fucking great, but please stop trying to do it again. And ‘No More’ is pure filler.
But as the album ends with Gore lambasting the human race – “Our souls are corrupt, our minds are messed up/Our consciences bankrupt, oh, we’re fucked” – you almost find yourself being grateful for Trump, Brexit and all the other crazy fascist shit going in the world today, for sparking this long-coasting band into life again. It’s by no means a perfect record, or even a great one, but it shows that Depeche Mode do indeed still have a bit of spirit in them.