For this listener at least, Depeche Mode's set on Jimmy Kimmel Live! last week did what it intended to—sent me searching for their new album, Sounds of the Universe. It wasn't so much that the performance of new songs like "Wrong" and "Come Back" set my expectations higher than usual for new DM product. What got my attention was the realization that all the things which previously kept me from wholly embracing this band—who I've actually spent a lot of time listening to since their catalog was recently reissued—have aged surprisingly well.
As a late-comer to DM, the lovely reissue campaign (which ran from 2006 to to 2008) taught me everything I know about the boys from Basildon. This backstory came mostly in the excellent half-hour documentaries packaged with each album. What stands out about these docs is the amount of time people peripheral to DM, but no less essential to their success, are given to explain the decisions that went into turning the laughing stock of '80s synth-pop into, well, the laughing stock of '90s alt rock—no mean feat, mind you.
Art directors, song pluggers, tour managers, marketing executives and the like are given near-equal time as the band members themselves in telling the DM story. The upside is we get a more level-headed, less myth-building take on the pop game (the opposite of this is the ridiculous myopia which guides the Beatles Anthology doc—which more or less claims the worldwide social and political upheaval of the '60s hinged upon John's choice of facial hair).
The downside to the airtime given to DM's handlers? It becomes clear just how out of their league the lads themselves were in appropriating the European avant-garde tradition which, from about '82 to '90, became an increasingly prominent part of their identity (the lyrics themselves have never completely masked DM's murky understanding of what they were pillaging). They are, in original member Vince Clarke's own words "just simple lads from Basildon." And, as much of the archival footage shows, unexpctedly bloke-ish, to boot.
But that was many years ago, before the crossover success of Violator in 1990; before frontman Dave Gahan's mid-'90s heroin overdose/suicide attempt; and before long-time compositional force (and the only trained musician in the group) Alan Wilder left to indulge his taste for industrial noise. It truly is a wonder DM survived the '90s.
But when they entered this decade, it was as a downsized unit, both in their diminished line-up and relevance. In the years since 2001's Exciter—a mostly forgettable attempt to keep up with IDM and glitch (remember those?)—Gahan has put out two decent-not-great solo albums (2003's Paper Mosters and 2007's Hourglass) and the band itself has grown into a respectable legacy act. They still put out new material but function more or less the same way fellow alt-boom survivors R.E.M. and the Cure do, with gently lowered expectations.
So in 2009, DM enter the promo blitz for their twelfth LP as a silver thread newly woven into the great pop tapestry. The prolonged '80s revival—started at the dawn of this decade by electro-clash (remember that?) bands like Fischerspooner and Ladytron and continuing this very moment by DIY synth starlets-on-the-make Little Boots and La Roux—have helped DM this much: that they're one of the most pretentious groups to ever hit Stateside pop radio no longer distracts from their decent songs, it's now part of their charm. They made self-seriousness kinda fun to listen to. And their legacy has been handled down to every Lady GaGa who sings the praises of avant-garde artists in interviews while singing dumb love lyrics in their songs
Sounds of the Universe, with its tinny ambition and self-conscious nod to their '80s evolution (both achieved through the analog gear they've restricted themselves to, this time out), seems to acknowledge this new and neutered status. It turns out to be their smartest move in years.