Depeche Mode – Playing the Angel (2005)
purchase this album

I think songwriters do an important job. By taking the multitude of life’s experiences and rephrasing them in ways that strike an emotional chord with their audience, they illuminate and strengthen the universality of the human condition. Except that sounds like bullshit, so I’ll rephrase: A good song lets you know you’re not alone.

This only really works, though, if the songwriter is honest. The ability, or the willingness, to examine different emotions and situations is an invaluable asset — it helps to at least create the illusion that you aren’t just striking a pose.

And that’s why I can’t fucking stand Depeche Mode.

Am I calling the members of the band liars? Not really. But I don’t — I refuse to — believe that anyone is in this bad of a mood all the time. They’ve made a 20-year career out of being sad, essentially. I could believe an album or two. But nobody can tell me that DM’s resolute moping is anything less than 64% artifice at this point.

Sure, lots of music is artificial. And once celebrity status is reached, things can’t help but change — there’s an unavoidable feedback loop between artist and audience, and the audience’s expectations will almost always color what the artist puts out. So why does it bother me so much more when Depeche Mode does it? Maybe it’s because I’m not an unhappy person. Maybe it’s because their albums almost always get good reviews despite their near-total lack of emotional range. I don’t know.

These aren’t bad songs — I mean, they aren’t badly written. In terms of production, there’s a good deal less of the industrial-ish clatter that the band has used to grime up its sound post-Violator, so you’ll probably read a lot of stuff that says things like “Their best since Violator!”

Does it represent anything at all in terms of artistic growth, though? I don’t know. My knee-jerk answer to that question would be “No,” or maybe “Don’t be ridiculous.” I haven’t spent any time immersed in the finer points of DM lyrics and music, though, so there are probably a few wrinkles I’m missing. I’m sure one or two fans will pop up here to tell me what an idiot I am, so we can all find out together.

The bottom line for me is that if you’re the type of person who agrees with Dave Gahan when he moans, in this album’s “Lillian,” “Pain and misery always hit the spot,” then Playing the Angel is most definitely your kind of album. If you’re like me, and you imagine that the guys in Depeche Mode do a lot of laughing and playing Nintendo between recording another set of dour songs, keep away. Either way, here are a couple of tastes: “Suffer Well” (download) and “The Sinner in Me” (download).