The double-nils have been good for ’80s comebacks. The Cure dropped the vastly underrated Bloodflowers and 4:13 Dream. Bruce Springsteen released more awesome albums this decade than he did during the Reagan administration (Working on a Dream is his mulligan). Morrissey’s Years of Refusal might very well be his best solo record. Heck, even Prince, with his gazillions of songs about fucking and/or wanting to fuck, had a flash of relevancy with Musicology and 3121. Throw in the scads of ’80s revivalists making money nowadays, and it’s clear that fellow ’80s leftovers Depeche Mode were due for a comeback record. And while some jumped the gun in declaring 2005’s Playing the Angel to be that record (c’mon, it wasn’t), the truth, however subjective, is that 2009’s Sounds of the Universe is the freshest Depeche a la Mode in almost 20 years.
Or 19, given that Violator came out in 1990. Since then, the Mode has been more or less artistically bankrupt, trying bad ideas that ranged from live band instrumentation (Songs of Faith and Devotion, which sucks) to giving their albums extreme titles that contrast with the boring music contained within (Ultra, Exciter, which blow). The band’s most recent output has aimed for a back-to-basics approach. Of course, ’80s artificiality is “the thing” right now for pop music, which also means that Sounds of the Universe sounds kinda modern.
Let’s get the criticisms out of the way. Sounds of the Universe’s beats don’t experiment quite like on Some Great Reward. None of the songs touch on eroticism like “Master and Servant,” although “Jezebel” gives it a go. Neither controversial nor thought-provoking, it’s a ham-fisted deep cut about a sexually liberated girl who dresses somewhat revealingly. In a world of sexting and online child pornography, “Jezebel” doesn’t shock or amaze. And the arrangement is boring.
But these shortcomings only matter to the diehards, and even then they’ll probably just be glad to have a solid Depeche Mode record in their hands. Sounds of the Universe is cool and catchy. Tunes like “In Chains,” “Come Back,” and single “Wrong” have a spacey elegance to them that recalls the better moments of Music for the Masses or Violator, even if they don’t supplant them. This record is a safe bet in every sense of the phrase. It’s a moderate artistic statement from the band, and it’s a decent purchase for fans of new and old synthpop. While the album doesn’t need to be an hour-long, some editing on one’s digital music player will cut Sounds of the Universe down to a more pleasing 45-50 minutes or so.