When Depeche Mode introduced electric guitars into their music on 1987’s Music for the Masses, it opened the English synth-pop pioneers up to not only a whole new realm of possibilities but a more rock-oriented fanbase as well.
By 1990, the simple yet effective guitars played by chief instrumentalist Martin Gore on songs like “Personal Jesus” helped make their album Violator the band’s commercial and creative breakthrough, establishing them as a crossover success on par with U2 and The Cure, a feat that never seemed possible when the band debuted the goofy, bouncy single “Just Can’t Get Enough” just nine years earlier.
For the last quarter century, the guitars have stuck around for nearly every album they’ve released since. But not since Songs of Faith and Devotion has the electric guitar played such a prominent role on a Depeche Mode record than it does on the trio’s excellent new LP Spirit.
It’s no secret frontman Dave Gahan has been delving deep into his love for the blues as the de facto lead singer for the English production team Soulsavers (replacing their previous singer Mark Lanegan) over the course of the duo’s last pair of LPs. The idea of the group calling their last full-length Delta Machine was in fact a confirmation that their roots in Son House are indeed as powerful as their origins at the plastic feet of Kraftwerk.
One key aspect that separates Spirit from its predecessors, however, is the increased live instrumentation. Martin Gore’s growth as a guitarist over the last 27 years has been profound.
He’s left behind accentuating the sound of his fingertips sliding up and down the string (“Enjoy The Silence”) to take on more complex chord arrangements that seem to emulate the likes of David Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar and Bad Seeds-era Mick Harvey—which is enhanced by the finely weathered baritone of Gahan, whose crooning is downright Cave-like on songs like “Eternal” and “Poison Heart.”
Gore the guitar player, meanwhile, shines brightest during the album’s more slow-burning moments like “The Worst Crime” and “Cover Me.” His combination of vintage six-strings (namely the signature lime green Gretsch Double Anniversary he favors) and the litany of effects pedals adds more vocabulary to the Cash-gone-Goth twang he’s been developing since Violator.
That extra bit of fuzz on Gahan’s microphone adds to the depth of the material as well, much of which ranks amongst the most politically charged of the band’s career. Especially on a track like “No More,” where Gahan appears critique the Republican head games that have been dogging DM fans since the first days of the Reagan/Thatcher era, cynically asking lawmakers, “When will it trickle down?”
On the album’s first single “Where’s The Revolution?” the singer directly calls for an uprising in the streets. And though he’s chiding the people for letting him down, Gahan should be comforted that his preemptive call to arms was heeded by the scores of Americans who marched against the election and inauguration of Donald Trump, not to mention some of the bogus laws he’s been trying to pass.
But it’s the excellent production work of James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco that truly makes Spirit the heaviest Depeche Mode LP yet. Also sitting in on drums throughout the album, Ford adds such serious dirge to the electro-electric grooves of tracks like “Scum” and “So Much Love” that you might find yourself double checking to see if you accidentally turned on a deep Nine Inch Nails track you had forgotten about instead.
The soundtrack to Say Anything originally put Depeche Mode on my radar. Hearing that dark, live version of “Stripped” amidst material from so many acts that I was obsessed with at the time—Living Colour, Fishbone, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Joe Satriani, The Replacements—was what helped to put them into the context of rock ‘n’ roll for me.
Listening to Spirit, it’s a wonderful thing to hear what a fine rock group they’ve evolved into since scoring the rom-com misery of Lloyd Dobler.