This October [2005, red.], Depeche Mode release their first album since 2001's two million-selling Exciter. "I really felt, before we started this album, that there was unfinished business," says Dave Gahan of their 11th studio album, Playing The Angel. And so it is that the world's foremost subversive electronic pop group have reconvened to, as the singer puts it, "make the best record we can." They just can't shake the disease.
Playing The Angel is an astonishingly fresh, exuberant release from the band who have, over 25 years, sold upwards of 50 million records worldwide and amassed a staggering 38 hit singles in the UK and no fewer than 13 Top 10 albums. And yet they sound like a new group, not one halfway through their third decade together. "Precious", the first single, is quintessential Mode, all cyber pulse and glorious chorus. "The Sinner In Me" perfectly balances the organic and synthetic, and climaxes, as do most of the tracks, with staccato blasts of noise and FX. On "Suffer Well" Dave's voice is more powerful than ever. "Macrovision", sung by Martin Gore, is hi-tech pop with an enormous hook. "John The Revelator" is one of many potential hit singles. "I Want It All" is one of the slower tracks with its minor-key menace, like trip hop from hell. "A Pain That I'm Used To" kicks off what would have been Side 2 in fine, furious style with its savage bursts of guitar.
The title for the album was taken, according to Fletch, from the lyric of a track called "The Darkest Star". The LP was recorded in Santa Barbara, New York and London. Recording began in January 2005 in California, with producer Ben Hillier at the helm providing a sense of challenge. "You have to work hard at reinventing yourself," admits Dave, "so you have to choose new people who push you." Playing The Angel is faster-paced than the last two Mode albums, heightening the sense of urgency and vibrancy. Ben's fondness for analogue synths over digital ones helped shape the sound.
It is also the first Depeche album to feature Dave Gahan credits - three of the tracks ("I Want It All", "Suffer Well" and "Nothing's Impossible") were written by the singer, who was encouraged by the reaction to his debut solo album Paper Monsters (2003). Martin was responsible for the remaining nine tracks. As usual, he was unflinching in his depiction of the dark side of the human condition. In fact, he jokes, the back cover of the LP sleeve may well feature the subtitle: Pain And Suffering In Various Tempos. "Dave said I've made a 25-year career out of one subject. I disagree: it's two!"
When asked what the broad, overarching themes of this record are, Martin smiles: "Anything that appeals to really dysfunctional people." It would be wrong, however, to dismiss Depeche Mode as harvesters of sorrow. "I never see our music as over-dark. There's always an element of hope. And I hope that comes over in the music."
A sense of optimism, of renewed vigour, of pleasure at what they've achieved, can be discerned from Playing The Angel. It's also obvious from the sheer delight Dave, Martin and Andy feel at being back with Depeche Mode, on the eve of the release of a brilliant album and a mammoth, sell-out world tour that confirms the enormity of their global audience.
Dave counts his blessings that he's still actually here to do this. "That we've achieved so much in 25 years, and survived so much… Of all the bands, this is the one I'd have put money on not still being around!" he laughs. "I see ourselves alongside U2 and R.E.M. more than any of the bands we came up with, although really we don't fit in and we never have, and I've come to embrace that - there's no one like Depeche Mode. I might have lost some of my drive in the mid-'90s, but now I've got it back. It's better being in Depeche Mode now than it has been for 15 years."
Ahoy Rotterdam, Rotterdam