Do you remember where you were on Monday 3rd October 2005?
George Best was in intensive care at Cromwell Hospital. Chelsea sat atop the Premier League with eight wins from eight games, with Charlton in second, Bolton in fifth and Wigan in eighth, having spanked Liverpool and sent them them to bed early with no supper the day before courtesy of a crushing 4-1 win at Anfield. Sugababes started the week with at number one with “Push The Button”, which had been composed just the day before on a cheap Casio calculator watch. And Depeche Mode released “Precious”, the first single from their “Playing the Angel” album and the last single, to my mind, that had the trademark Depeche Mode one-finger keyboard riff.
Jump back almost 20 more years and Depeche Mode were on the verge of taking up permanent residence on your radio. For almost the next decade the band were at the peak of their musical powers, unable to refill a simple salt cellar without Smash Hits proclaiming it to be “pervtastic!”and allowing anyone with shares in leather trouser factories to put down payments on ocean-going yachts, private jets and the more affordable moons of Jupiter.
However, the periods following both 1993’s “Songs of Faith and Devotion” and 2005’s “Playing the Angel” were marked by creative lulls and dramatically decreased sales. “Ultra”, released in 1996, sold 592,000 copies in the US compared to 919,000 copies of “Songs…” (whilst the previous album “Violator” shifted over 1.5m copies). In the UK “Playing the Angel” had sold 100,000 units, but follow-ups “Sounds of the Universe” and “Delta Machine” both shifted just 60,000.
More damaging than the sales figures from 2005 onwards was the absence of any tunes or even a single memorable hook. “Wrong”, the lead single from “Sounds of the Universe”, had just the shouted title in lieu of any riff, and frankly the music from both albums sounds like the automated backing loops like the sort that home keyboards in the 1990s were likely.
Whilst the energetic performances of Delta Machine’s less execrable tracks on the “Live in Berlin” film and double album redeemed them somewhat, there’s nothing that even comes close to the riffs (on either keyboard or guitar) that made “Just Can’t Get Enough”, “A Question of Time”, “Personal Jesus” or “Enjoy The Silence” burrow along your ear canal and lay their infectious musical eggs in your brain.
But with this week’s release of fourteenth studio album “Spirit”, there’s cause to be cautiously optimistic. Whilst lead single “Where’s The Revolution” could – cynically – be viewed as a lazy post-Brexit, post-Trump rabble rouser, there are enough tracks on “Spirit” to suggest that actual anger now courses more freely through their veins again and that translates well into song. The stand-out piece is “So Much Love”, which if not exactly a return to the pervtastic “Black Celebration” heyday would certainly not sound out of place on “Songs of Faith and Devotion”.
To celebrate the launch of “Spirit” the band played an 11-song set in Berlin, blending old tracks alongside new. What does become noticeable in this set is how many of the new tracks sound just a little bit like old tracks; a guitar riff here, a sleazy bassline there. I’m already looking forward to the gig at the London Stadium this summer.