[2 August 2010]
Given that Recoil is ostensibly the work of one man—Alan Wilder, he who shall be branded “former member of Depeche Mode” for the rest of his days—the success of a single Recoil track generally has surprisingly little to do with that man. This is especially true of a compilation effort that attempts to whittle Wilder’s output down into easily-digestible morsels ready for something like mass consumption.
Truly, Recoil is a project ill-suited to career-spanning collection.
When you try to collect the individual tracks of Recoil, nearly every song sounds as though it’s falling into a pattern. Every track slowly fades in, usually introducing some sort of atmospheric noise and maybe an identifiable instrument or two. Then a beat appears—perhaps hip-hop, perhaps rock, perhaps even a pop beat—always residing in that tempo range that could be defined as “not fast enough to dance to, but not too slow to be intense”. Once the beat gets rolling, the vocalist gets the all-clear to do whatever that vocalist does. If it’s Nitzer Ebb’s Douglas McCarthy, it will probably involve grunting and growling. If it’s Nicole Blackman, it will be spouting deep-as-a-puddle poetry in the most condescending, sarcastic voice possible. If it’s Joe Richardson, it’ll be something like the blues. They’ll do their thing for a while, Wilder will fill the song to its breaking point with sounds and melodies, and then it will fade out, either by removing the layers or just reducing the volume ever so slowly until it’s silent.
To collect Recoil is to remove the subtle identities that reveal themselves over the course of a Recoil album. 1992’s Bloodline was as much a proof of concept as anything, a display of the cinematic electronics that Wilder perfected with Depeche Mode behind an array of vocalists who were a long way from Dave Gahan. 1997’s Unsound Methods took the scenic route toward an understanding of the dark side of the human psyche, while 2000’s Liquid placed a premium on spoken word and the innermost thoughts of someone whose life was about to end. 2007’s subHuman resides in a different universe than the previous two albums, relying largely on a general sense of the blues (thanks to Richardson) to supplement Wilder’s increasingly sprawling backdrops.
Selected utterly removes this identity, remastering the songs in a way that puts them all in the four-and-a-half to six-and-a-half minute range, and mixing them all together to create one big cinematic soup of creepy, majestic backdrops and dramatic vocalists. The only time anything approaching identity is achieved is when one of the two Bloodline tracks appear—the primitive electronics of “Faith Healer” and “Edge to Life” effectively set them apart from the rest of the tracks, actually turning them into highlights of sorts amongst all of the better-produced but similarly-constructed later pieces.
That’s not to say there’s nothing of value to be found in the rest; on the contrary, taken on their own, almost any one of these pieces is an engrossing five-or-so-minute journey into darkness. Diamanda Galas does what she does so well and turns “Strange Hours” into a dialogue with herself, while Wilder’s take on a Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet vocal (“Jezebel”) sounds like a version of Moby’s “Run On” from the other side of the bridge. Relative unknown Siobhan Lynch fronts “Drifting”, the best song Sneaker Pimps never wrote, and Maggie Estep drives the deeply unsettling spoken word of “Luscious Apparatus”. Perhaps the only true missteps are trusting Nicole Blackman to be anything other than trite for six minutes (“Want”) and the swirly, boring 100th Window-era Massive Attack imitation of “Allelujah”.
There’s a second disc here that performs the opposite function as the first; the various B-side remixes collected here couldn’t be more disparate from each other, ranging from electro overhauls (“The Killing Ground (Solid State Mix)”, “Supreme (True Romance)”) to alternate takes that effectively bring together disparate elements of the albums from which they were originally culled (“Stalker (Punished Mix)”, “Black Box (Excerpt)”). As a bonus, it’s a perfect treat for Recoil fans, especially those who weren’t quite devoted enough to pick up the many singles Wilder has released over the last 20 years. The various tracks don’t work together very well, but here it never sounds like they’re meant to. This is a treat for those already acquainted with the Recoil sound, a demonstration of just how many directions that sound can be pulled in.
It’s possible that all of the remastering and rejiggering of the tracks on the first disc of Selected was for the purpose of devising some kind of new narrative for the best-of album. The result, unfortunately, is a mess of missed opportunity, of stripped identity. A simple chronological order would at least have allowed for each album’s tracks to play as something of a vignetted version of the album itself, which would have been a major improvement over the “whole is less than the sum of its parts” execution that actually happened. Even for the listener who has never heard Recoil before, one of the proper albums would be a better starting point than this.