An exciting milestone

Everyone reaches a time in their life when they have to get rid of the clutter. For most of us, this could mean anything from family heirlooms to unnecessary personal complications. For Depeche Mode, this means the excess baggage of a 20-year journey from squeaky Basildon electro-poppers to stadium art-rockers who have trotted the globe and almost killed themselves in the process.

Exciter (David Gresham) is their 10th album, as significant a milestone for a band as a person turning 40.
The powerful guitars that marauded their Nineties albums have disappeared, along with the more strident of their anthemic choruses. The creative fog that accompanied a breakdown in band communications has been replaced by a new understanding. Most pivotally, although Dave Gahan has long bid goodbye to the drug use that resulted in a suicide attempt in 1996, Exciter is the first album Depeche have completed since his recovery. The scars haven’t disappeared, but this is Depeche at their most stripped down, confessional, raw and intimate. It’s partly a return to the electro-art plot that was lost somewhere after 1989’s masterpiece, Violator. But it also feels like a new beginning.

In cutting their art to the quick, the addition of a new producer has proved crucial. Mark Bell twiddled Björk’s Homogenic and Selmasongs but was originally in Warp Records experimentalists LFO, and he has given Depeche an edginess they haven’t had in years. The electro beats have been slowed to a deathly pulse; the sound of a science-fiction landscape. Exciter is littered with electronic booby traps and sonic trapdoors that could lead anywhere and nowhere. It is never allowed to settle: Exciter can be gloriously optimistic or devastatingly bleak, depending on how it catches you.

Central to Exciter is the peculiar musical relationship between songwriter Martin Gore and Gahan. Gore claims not to write with Gahan in mind, and would no doubt argue that Exciter’s themes—love, obsession, insecurity, displacement, redemption and, repeatedly, addiction—are universal, but virtually every line seems to bear some significance to the singer’s experience. Either Gore is subconsciously addressing his pal, or playing psychological games to push his partner to the limit. Whatever, something has prompted Gahan into the strongest, most heartfelt vocal performance of his career, typified by the venom he puts into Shine‘s eerily mocking line: “You’ve been hanging from a rope of mediocrity, strung up by your insecurities.” On Comatose, a dangerously pleasurable near-death experience, you can almost hear the wounds open and be healed.

Exciter‘s breadth of vision is illustrated by Dream On, the stark, experimental single, which manages to be equal parts Kraftwerk and Robert Johnson. But there are songs here too—the gorgeous, humble Freelove, the craving The Sweetest Condition—as singable as anything they’ve done. When the Body Speaks, a body-versus-soul dilemma, is particularly stellar, the fragile, tinkling guitars recalling U2 at their most awestruck and devotional.

The band haven’t lost their capacity for excess. Exciter‘s 13 songs are two too many (the Ennio Morricone-like instrumental Easy Tiger, and the incongruous-sounding, Marc Almond-like Breathe).

Nevertheless, this is a revitalised Depeche Mode: cleansed, streamlined, and in prime condition to take on the world again.

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