Depeche Mode never really seem to get the respect they deserve. They’ve been around as long as U2 and have sold a sizeable amount of records, and are one of the few rock combos from any era who have managed to maintain a steady level of international acclaim and popularity through almost three full decades. Why aren’t they in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
But that’s neither here nor there for the matter at hand. For those of you who may have missed it, Depeche Mode are still a going concern. 2005’s Playing the Angel may not have been Violator, but it was by all accounts a much more vigorous release than their previous, decrepit outing, 2001’s Exciter (anything but!). After almost fading away into a long twilight of hostile recriminations (not to mention the small matter of Gahan dying of a heroin overdose back in the ‘90s, only to be resurrected by paramedics after two minutes), they managed to heal their wounds, mend their fences and come back as a strong, stable and cohesive unit.
But this isn’t a review of a Depeche Mode CD. This is the second solo disc from front man Dave Gahan. The existence of the disc is a miracle, not necessarily because (as I mentioned) Gahan’s continued existence is a kind of miracle, but because it wasn’t until Depeche Mode had already been around for over two decades that Gahan set out to write any songs. The songwriting duties in Depeche Mode have traditionally devolved solely onto Martin Gore, or at least since Vince Clarke left the group back in 1981. Gahan didn’t release a solo album until 2003, Paper Monsters. The album was good, but suffered from sounding exactly as you might expect someone’s first album to sound like, given the circumstances. It was very much like Gore’s songwriting work for Depeche Mode, with some confessional lyrics and a bit more of a rock edge than we expect from Depeche Mode.
But it was certainly good enough to restore Gahan’s confidence, and by extension, reinvigorate Depeche Mode. He had proven himself to Gore, and contributed three songs to Playing the Angel. Notably, they sounded very much like Depeche Mode songs, enough so that they released one of them (“Suffer Well”) as a single, which was subsequently nominated for a Grammy. (It lost to Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack”, in the category of “Best Dance Recording”.)
Which brings us to Hourglass, Gahan’s second solo record. If there was perhaps a desire to go “soft” on Gahan’s first album, considering the extraordinary circumstances behind it’s release and Gahan’s unlikely creative second-wind, there is no such compulsion for Hourglass. The album should be allowed to sink or swim on its own merits, with no shred of sentiment for the ongoing Depeche Mode soap opera influencing the critic’s opinion. Thankfully, there’s no need to pull my punches. This is a pretty good album.
Not, it should be noted, a great album, but Gahan’s strength’s are singularly well represented. One of the challenges for any singer is learning how to write songs that fit his talents. (It may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many otherwise good singers forget this simple fact, not that I’m naming any names, Michael Stipe.) Hourglass is filled with songs that take advantage of Gahan’s voice which is melancholy, languorous, slightly disaffected with a core of honest sentiment. There’s a reason why Gahan is probably the archetypal synth-pop vocalist, and it’s a good thing this album is considerably more synth-poppy than its predecessor. Not that Gahan can’t sing straight rock & roll when he wants to, what else are “Personal Jesus”, or “I Feel You” but classic rock & roll? But he sounds good singing synth-pop ballads. Also, Gahan’s voice has been recorded with much more of an ear towards a soft, natural tone, as opposed to the harsh, metallic timbre of much of Depeche Mode’s middle-era material. The approach works for the softer, more personal tracks.
“Saw Something” is an understated start to a relatively understated album. If you didn’t know better you’d be hard pressed to tell it from one of Gore’s ballads, which is not meant to diminish Gahan’s ability, but to indicate that he is comfortable in this milieu and has nothing to lose by courting the comparison. The albums up-tempo numbers, “Kingdom”, “Deeper and Deeper”, are darker and more confrontational than might be expected. What they lack in pop hooks they make up for in attitude, which is a positive indicator that Gahan has not yet succumbed to Old Rocker’s Disease (that would be the urge of every aging rock & roller to mistake advancing age for an invitation to quiet, often semi-acoustic “profundity”).
“Miracles” is a highlight, putting Gahan’s songwriting voice into a much more vulnerable first-person confessional mode than we are accustomed to seeing. The ambient electronic backdrop showcases his vocals to good effect. “Use You” fumbles with a rather bog-standard lyrical conceit (“We have each other, / You are my brother”,really?), but the album recovers with a moody final third. “Endless” builds on a sprightly micro house beat to create an effective romantic plea. “A Little Lie” sounds a bit too much like an outtake off a late-‘80s Bowie album, not necessarily a good thing, although the song recovers somewhat. But the album ends on an inarguable highpoint with the evocative, stripped “Down”. This is a track that could slide easily alongside any of his group’s better ballads which is no mean feat, considering this is the man who sang “Enjoy the Silence” and “In Your Room”.
So, the miracle isn’t that Dave Gahan has a robust solo career after all those years of playing second-banana, but that after only two solo albums he’s evolved into a pretty decent songwriter, no qualifications necessary. Hourglass isn’t a perfect album by any means, but it’s got enough really good stuff on it to make your overlook the not-so-good. Not bad for a dead man.