Grandfathers of the techno revolution, Depeche Mode has never gotten the respect they deserve. Despite the band's megastardom in Europe and Asia, American critics have dismissed the Mode's savvy blend of synth-pop melancholy ever since they launched out of England's post-punk New Romantic scene in 1981. Yet, across 18 years and 12 albums, this moody outfit has crafted electronica with elegance, lyricism, and emotion. Forget "People are People" and "Enjoy the Silence" for a sec -- Depeche Mode is the historical link between Kraftwerk and the Chemical Brothers. Listen to 1981's "Shout!" and you can hear the ancestry of the rave. 1982's "Monument" echoes the best of today's trip-pop, while 1983's "The Great Outdoors" is as evocative and thought-provoking a sonic journey as anything by the Orb or Future Sound of London.
The quartet hit their stride in the late eighties, peaking with three back-to-back great albums: Black Celebration (1986), Music for the Masses (1987), and the more radio-friendly Violator (1990). Then, something broke -- namely, the lead singer David Gahan. Ensnared in the rock idol cliche, Gahan wholeheartedly embraced the grunge aesthetic -- he grew his hair long, moved to L.A., and cultivated a heroin addiction.
Soon thereafter, the band came out with 1993's Songs of Faith and Devotion, a confused experiment in gospel grunge that, while yielding at least one catchy single ("Walking in my Shoes"), signaled a band in decline. Sure enough, the SoFaD tour ended in disarray, with songwriter Martin Gore suffering a brain seizure, keyboardist Andrew Fletcher having a nervous breakdown, Gahan O.D.'ing once and attempting suicide twice, and aural technician Alan Wilder leaving the unit in disgust. It seemed the Mode had reached the end of the road.
Yet, the three remaining gloomy Brits have cleaned up, hired a new producer (Tim Simenon of Bomb the Bass), and returned to the fold with Ultra. Slower and subtler than previous forays, Ultra both reprises an earlier Mode and entices with a taste of Modes to come. The band has wisely left behind the forced arena rock of their last album and evolved towards a more richly nuanced hybrid of conventional and electronic instrumentation. The resulting sound is both engaging in its diversity and surprising in its consistency. The aplomb with which Depeche Mode fuses electronic beats, cascading violins, and guitar hooks into a soulful and coherent whole puts the new techno-geek incarnation of U2 to shame. Where U2's Pop! crashes waves of sound upon the listener, Ultra achieves an equally rich sonic texture through delicacy and understatement.
Lyrically and musically, Ultra depicts the band grappling with its recent scars, particularly Gahan's smack problem. From the self-loathing and acoustic turbulence of "Barrel of a Gun," the first sequel, to the mechanical gurgling of the outro, "Painkiller," the shadow of a syringe falls over the album. Gahan sings of "a vicious appetite" and pines for "the spirit of love" with an earnest intensity that usually overcomes Gore's occasionally banal lyrics. His high register and emotionally laden delivery on songs such as "Love Thieves" and "Sister of Night" ("Little 15" redux) are reminiscent of the days of "See You" and "Get the Balance Right," before Gahan settled into the deadpan baritone croon that carries most of the Mode's later hits.
Perhaps due to the band's travails, Ultra is the most experimental Mode album since 1983's A Broken Frame, when these same three fellows lost their leading songwriter, Vince Clarke, to Yaz (and subsequently Erasure). As a result, with the exception of "It's No Good," a catchy and confident tune that's A-1 formula Mode, there's no hit single potential on Ultra. There are, however, a good number of interesting songs that gradually seep into your system. "The Bottom Line" finds Gore at his most emotive, once again singing the bittersweet woes of infatuation over an aural fabric that alternates between jazz trio cool, electropop bounce, and country twang. With arpeggiating violins and arena-rock-style guitar bridges, "Home" is an intriguing Disneyesque ditty. And both "Jazz Thieves" and "Uselink" prove that the Mode haven't lost their knack for atmospheric instrumentals.
To be sure, the band occasionally drops the ball. Their attempt to fashion a Dharma Mode with jangling guitars and either Zen-inspired inanities ("let yourself go/let your spirit grow") in "Freestate" fails miserably. Moreover, Gahan's impassioned delivery of rehab platitudes such as "my true will carries me along" in "Insight" grow melodramatic and tiresome. Nevertheless, Ultra is a welcome return by the Mode, who illustrate continued evolution despite their recent meltdown. If Gahan can stay off the needle and Gore can stay on the angst, then these synth-pop pioneers look to remain relevant in the musical era they helped to mold.