Depeche Mode: Spirit review – stripped back, amped up and angry

A misguided endorsement from one of America’s most hated figures only serves to make the fury here sound even more righteous

From New Labour and Britpop to Donald Trump and Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World, politicians’ attempts to co-opt pop music seldom end well. But spare a thought for poor old Depeche Mode, recipients of perhaps the least welcome political endorsement since Margaret Thatcher killed the burgeoning career of 80s hopefuls Thrashing Doves stone dead by saying she liked their video on Saturday Superstore. Last month, American neo-Nazi Richard Spencer – best known as That Guy Who Got Punched on Live Television – described them as “the official band of the alt-right”. A “lifelong fan” of Depeche Mode, he went on to suggest that “ambiguity” in their music implied they had “a fascist element”.

On the one hand, well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? A cursory glance at a photo of Spencer might instill music fans of a certain vintage with a curious sense of deja vu: with his black clothes, Hitlerjungend coiffure, penchant for being photographed looking moody in the snow and obsession with unpicking lyrical “ambiguities”, Spencer resembles exactly a particular breed of desperate knobshiner who lurked round the indie and goth scenes in the 80s, convinced that everyone from New Order to Nitzer Ebb – and indeed Depeche Mode – was sending out coded messages celebrating the imminent arrival of a Fourth Reich.

But even leaving aside the band issuing what you might tactfully call a firm rebuttal (“he’s a cunt,” suggested frontman Dave Gahan, adding: “I saw the video of him getting punched. He deserved it”), there is the fact that Spencer’s remarks arrived just as Depeche Mode released an album that gives every impression of being an hour-long howl of outrage and horror at a world in which people such as Richard Spencer appear to be in the ascendant.

In fairness, Spirit’s lyrics deal in the same broad brushstrokes as People Are People or Get the Balance Right – “the world we live in and life in general” as the lyrics of Somebody put it, rather than specifics – but it doesn’t take a genius to work out what’s fuelling the album’s tenor. It opens with Going Backwards, a kind of bleaker, internet mob-inspired take on Devo’s theory of de-evolution (“We’re going backwards, armed with new technology, we’re going backwards to a caveman mentality”) and ends with Fail, on which Martin Gore’s bell-like tenor offers the unpromising conclusion: “Our consciences are bankrupt – we’re fucked.” In between, a mood noticeably similar to the inconsolable gloom that shrouded 1987’s Black Celebration is spiked with bursts of fizzing anger.

The latter isn’t an emotion Depeche Mode are particularly known for – angst yes; fury no – but it proves to have a particularly potent effect. If they’ve never quite matched the music they made between the mid-80s and mid-90s, all of Depeche Mode’s recent albums have had their moments, but not moments like Where’s the Revolution or Scum. The former attempts to turn their ability to rouse stadiums with sleazily paced anthemics into a galvanising force: “Come on people, you’re letting me down,” complains the chorus, while elsewhere the lyrics borrow from the Impressions’ People Get Ready. The latter, meanwhile, proceeds at mid-tempo, but is drenched in distortion, and as a result, sounds as if it’s shaking with barely contained rage.

It’s not the only time the impact of the album is sharpened by its sound. Produced by James Ford – presumably hired more on the basis of his role as half of the electronic duo Simian Mobile Disco than for his fame as the Arctic Monkeys’ preferred producer – it simultaneously strips things back and amps them up, as evidenced by the relentless, Suicide-like pounding of So Much Love and the fantastic Cover Me, the latter a lone crack of light amid the otherwise consuming darkness: it slowly builds up to a finale that takes up half the song, is entirely instrumental and based around a simple analogue synth arpeggio. Poison Heart, meanwhile, offers a distinctly Depeche Modeish twist on retro soul: the rhythm pared back to a metronomic boom-crash, the choppy, staccato guitar electronically warped until it feels like a punch to the guts, the background occasionally erupting into the kind of industrial clanking that decorated 1983’s Construction Time Again.

There is an argument often posited about artists in Depeche Mode’s position, which suggests their new albums exist mostly as an excuse to announce tours, on which they fill the world’s arenas on the basis of music they made 25 or 30 years ago rather than out of any real desire on the part of the public to hear what they’ve been up to lately. You can see where it comes from, but Spirit suggests it’s not so straightforward. It has flaws: You Move isn’t the most robust addition to the canon of Depeche Mode tracks that Smash Hits would once have dubbed “pervalicious”; the lyrics of Poorman edge uncomfortably close to the deadly handiwork of Noel Gallagher. (The titular poor man is apparently both “on the road / pushing along his heavy load / heading for no fixed abode”, and “on the street / lying in the snow and sleet / begging for something to eat”.)

Then again, the odd burst of lyrical clumsiness has always been part of Depeche Mode’s makeup – this is, after all, the band that once inquired if people are people, “why should it be you and I get along so awfully”. Furthermore, on Spirit, the moments where inspiration dips are few, far between and swamped by those where Depeche Mode sound raw and alive and rigidly opposed to merely going through the motions.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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