Thoughts on "Delta Machine"
It’s no secret that I’m a longtime depeche Mode fan. I’ve seen them in concert many times, I went to the midnight release parties, I’ve fronted depeche mode cover bands, I’ve designed dM-inspired fonts.
I’ve pretty much stuck with them through thick and thin for, well, all of of my adult life, and a good portion of my youth.
That might make it hard to listen to any new material from them with a critical ear. Conversely, it might make me resistant to any changes in sound that they may undertake. I’ve seen fans go both ways.
“Delta Machine” is going to be a divisive album.
For the past few albums, the band has been slowly transitioning from their older “stadium synthpop” sound to a more minimal, tech-y sound, with limited levels of success. Many fans have blamed this on their producer, Ben Hillier, but I don’t buy it. I’ve listened to other stuff produced by Hillier – Blur, Natalie Imbruglia, Elbow among others – and none of them sound like minimal house. There is a dry, somewhat raw production style, but that’s also common to a lot of modern producers. I lay a lot of the changes at the feet of dM’s principal songwriter, Martin Gore, since his fascination with the Kompakt-style techno scene is well-documented, as is his penchant for buying used analog synths on eBay, and his own experiments with the VCMG project demonstrate some clear precedent for the sound they adopted on Delta Machine.1
The trick to understanding “Delta Machine” seems to be in listening to it isolated from previous depeche Mode albums. It’s a very modern album, in terms of production style and songwriting, and in many ways is a complete inversion of the depeche Mode “formula.” In the “classic” era (roughly, “Some Great Reward” through “Songs of Faith and Devotion”, where they had an established lineup and aesthetic), a depeche Mode song generally contained a vocal line that was barely indistinguishable from a monotonous plainchant, while the song’s hooks were laid upon layers of synth filligree. This can be attributed, most likely, to the work of departed synth-jockey Alan Wilder, who took Martin’s sparse guitar-strum-and-vocal demos and made them into heavily-orchestrated electronic arrangements.2 The tracks on “Delta Machine” probably bear more resemblance to the demos that at any point in their history, and feature electronics driving basic chordal movement and rhythm section work, but handing nearly all the melodic work to Dave Gahan’s vocals and Martin’s guitar. This is a theme they’ve been building to since “Dream On”, but they’ve never fully committed to it until now. A track like “My Little Universe” is a simple glitchy loop repeated ad nauseum, but with melody and hook provided by an almost Lennon-esque vocal line. This was hinted at with the leadoff single, “Heaven” which featured Gahan crooning over a surprisingly sparse arrangement, and had me wondering just what this album was going to bring. In context it makes some more sense (but is still a decidedly odd choice for an advance single).
Thankfully, Dave Gahan’s voice is finally up to the task of this sort of thing. After his near-death experience in the 90’s, he decided that vocal lessons were the order of business. And while his vocals are starting to show a little age-related crackle, his range and dynamic control are far beyond what they were 20 years ago. The vocals are generally very up-front and very dry, a hypermodern contrast to the lush, reverbed vocals on “Violator”, a sound that would fall flat of Gahan couldn’t pull off the vocal lines. Vocal ‘verb is used more as a creative effect than as a de rigueur vocal processor.
Martin’s lyrics are starting to show their age, though. His lyrical output over the years has been thematically, almost annoyingly, consistent – heaven, angel, sin, lust, down on my knees, etc. He doesn’t deviate much on Delta Machine. Which is fine, but I get the distinct feeling that he’s not saying anything new, that he took a bunch of old dM songs, tossed them in a blender, and what came out were lyrics to the new album.
So, with all that said, is the album any good?
Well, as I said, divisive. Personally? I think it’s one of their stronger outings in years. While I may not agree with every stylistic choice they made, they at least didn’t half-ass it, the way I felt they did on “Sounds of the Universe”. If this album were released by, say, Matthew Dear, the Pitchforkerati would probably wet themselves and call it a groundbreaking new sound. Longtime dM fans may be disappointed that there’s nothing here that sounds like “Enjoy the Silence” (although tracks like “Broken” and “Alone” are probably closer to the lush dM sound of old than any other tracks). There’re a couple of…not great tracks (“Soft Touch/Raw Nerve” has some cringe-inducing lyrics3, and I can’t say I’m a fan of the Gore-fronted “The Child Inside”), and the analog-synth drum programming occasionally sounds like someone hit the “rhumba” button on their 1984 casiotone (which, surprisingly, often works in context of the song, but not during the few-too-often drum machine solos).
The real question will be how well this album ages. Their early albums are firmly rooted in the sounds of their eras, which while still quite listenable, do scream “early 80’s” in just about every possible way 4. Their classic-period stuff fares better, less because they sound of the era, but because they helped define the sound of the whole genre. Since they’ve switched to this very modern, almost trendy style of production and arrangement, they do run the risk of sounding dated in a few years, but the blend of retro-pop sounds and straightforward pop structure may do well to mitigate that. We shall see.
(1) I’ve also read that some fans decry the new album for sounding too much like a delta blues disc. And while there’s a strong, clear blues-rock influence – especially tracks like “Goodbye” – calling “Delta Machine” a blues album is about as ridiculoulsy ignorant of that musical genre as calling “Songs of Faith and Devotion” a grunge album…which also happened
(2) Case in point, it was Wilder who was responsible for making their hit “Enjoy the Silence” a dance track, instead of the ballad originally demoed by Gore.
(3) “Is my radar that off?”
(4) One of the best summations of 80’s synthpop was a review that stated the first commandment of synthpop was “Thou shalt sing with the voice of the Proletariat!” They had that in spades.