REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/20/2017
“We are the bigots.”
So begins the first line of Depeche Mode’s new album, and it only gets bleaker from there. The early marketing for the album positioned it as a relevant, modern protest disc from the veteran gloomy synth-pop band, giving the impression that it was yet another artist speaking out against right-wing politics, Brexit, Trump, etc.
But this is not exactly true, and it’s why Spirit is an unsettling but necessary listen. Depeche Mode turns the tables by looking at humanity as a whole, asking how we even got to this point as a species. The whole of “Going Backwards” asks the question that, despite all of our awesome technology and thousands of years of knowledge, we’re still retreating to a caveman, me-first mentality, because maybe that’s all we are capable of.
This difference is important. Songwriters Dave Gahan and Martin Gore aren’t calling out the political leaders; they are calling out YOU, the person who posts on Facebook comments sections, the person who proudly puffs out political opinions at family cookouts that he heard five minutes ago on Hannity that sounded good, the person who simply watches as his fellow man says and does reprehensible, racist, violent things and does nothing because, well, what can you do? A band like Green Day posits a youthful fuck-the-establishment mentality, and screw Trump and Steve Bannon while you’re at it, and we need a revolution. Depeche Mode, wise sages that they are after 35 years, says “Where’s the revolution / Come on, people, you’re letting me down.” Maybe we’re all talk, because we sure as shit aren’t doing anything to make things better.
Most late-period Depeche Mode albums value mood over catchy songs – as opposed to, say, 1990’s superb Violator – and this one isn’t that different, focusing far more on the grim lyrics and the overall tone than on memorable, pop-friendly songs. “The Worst Crime” is typical, a slow-paced near-elegy slog with lines like “Misguided leaders / Apathetic hesitation / Uneducated readers / For whatever reason / We now find ourselves in this / We are all charged with treason.” Sometimes, you have to stare into the mirror to realize you’ve hit rock bottom before you actually do anything about it. Spirit is easily the band’s best album in over a decade, probably their most realized work since Ultra, even if the music isn’t as consistently catchy and memorable throughout the run time.
Part of the album’s appeal is its refusal to pull punches, most notably on “Poison Heart” and “Scum,” which pulses and burbles under Floydian synthesizer washes and Gahan’s overdriven computerized lyrics that snarl “Hey scum / What have you done for anyone,” which could be directed at anybody, though one imagines he has a specific target in mind. The lament of “Poorman” is directed at all of us who like to pretend hunger and class differences don’t exist (“Corporations get the breaks / Keeping almost everything they make … When will it trickle down?” Gahan intones, in one of the few explicitly left-wing moments on the record).
The midsection of the album pauses the political for a set of electronic tracks that will likely be remixed for the club, including the purely physical “You Move,” “Cover Me,” which starts slow but transitions into an intense slow-burn EDM cut, and the mournful “Eternal,” a moment of transparent promise from one lover to another. And in that vein of love comes “So Much Love,” a relatively upbeat (for these guys) exhortation that love will win, no matter who tries to stop it. It’s the linchpin on which the rest of the record hangs and its placement toward the end seems intentional, because it’s the band saying that we are truly capable of quelling our baser instincts, our apathy, our mob mentality tendencies, our judging and sniping, our religious differences and our fear of the unknown in order to treat each other with respect, to be human beings and not let things separate us.
And the album never really arrives at that easy answer explicitly; it’s up to the listener to figure out if things are hopeless, things are fine the way they are, or things can improve, and the band suggests all three at one point or another, because there are no easy answers. But Spirit dares us to try.