Long before marketing geniuses coined the term electronica, Depeche Mode accomplished what few techno acts have managed: They made computerized pop accessible to the proletariat. Unfortunately the band's ultramodern image came at a price. Many critics couldn't see past the group's high-fashion aesthetic, and that was a shame. Depeche Mode classics such as Music for the Masses and Violator were sumptuously erotic dissertations on love, sexual politics, and theology. The group's 1993 disc, Songs of Faith and Devotion, was a flawed yet commendable reconciliation of synth-pop and hard rock that anticipated the grunge phenomenon.
But as the '90s progressed, well-publicized internal conflicts threatened to deep-six the band. Ultra (1997) lacked the sensuousness and brainy allure of the band's best work. That makes the group's glimmering new album a pleasant surprise. Subdued yet inviting, Exciter possesses the lovely Eurocentric melodies and keen insights that distinguish Depeche Mode from the techno-pop pack. Moreover the album is couched in warm, automated rhythms that throb like a lover's heartbeat.
But peek beneath these inviting rhythms and you'll discover lyrics that explore the darkest elements of romance. In DM classics "Behind the Wheel" and "Master and Servant," songwriter Martin Gore examined the horrifying loss of control that often accompanies love. Gore seemed to argue that sadomasochism is an unavoidable component of love. Exciter expands on this curious theme, featuring ambiguous lyrics that celebrate and condemn indulgence.
On the new album's dreamlike "When the Body Speaks," singer David Gahan gives voice to Gore's tortured sentiments: "To the soul's desires/The body listens.../ I'm just a slave here/At the mercy/Of a girl." The hypnotic "I Am You" is even more succinct. To wit: "You have bound my heart with subtle chains/So much pleasure that it feels like pain." More than any contemporary pop composer, Gore understands that love and loathing are two sides of the same coin.
Exciter comes highly recommended to anyone nursing rosy romantic illusions. With its psychosexual sentiments and ejaculating rhythms, Exciter is the soundtrack to a sublimely dysfunctional relationship. And in the final analysis, don't most relationships fit that description?
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