Every genre has its towering titans, and Depeche Mode strikes a better claim than any other group to being electronic music’s equivalent to the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Not only has the Basildon, England ensemble been responsible for turning out some of the genre’s finest singles and albums during its creative apex, running approximately from the early 1980s on through to the departure of Alan Wilder in 1995, but the core trio of Dave Gahan, Martin Gore, and Andrew Fletcher can still fill stadiums these days as well as any rock dinosaurs or triumphant nouveau pop stars. Ever since the 1989 concert film 101 proved beyond all doubt to the wider world that this bunch of skinny synth-playing Brits could deliver an extraordinary live show, Depeche Mode has made sure to make aural and visual documentation of its tours available for commercial consumption.
Depeche Mode’s new live release, Tour of the Universe — Barcelona 20/21:11:09, is the group’s latest installment in that reliable tradition. Assembled from two shows performed in Barcelona, Spain in support of its 2009 studio album Sounds of the Universe, Tour of the Universe is available in a DVD/2 CD combo set. (For the purposes of this review, only the audio portion will be covered.) The fact that both nights’ setlists could be mixed together without a join being discernible, apart from the abrupt ending of disc one, is a testament to Depeche Mode’s mastery of the craft of live performance.
And Depeche Mode definitely “gives good show” here. Reliably backed by an ebb and flow of traditional and synthesized instrumentation, singer Dave Gahan is always front and center, belting out each tune in his capable brooding baritone, flavored with the occasional crowd-stirring exaltation at the appropriate moments (“Sing it!”). Songwriter Martin Gore gets his customary turn at the mic, having developed an oscillating vibrato (omnipresent on “Jezebel” and always threatening to disrupt the show-stealing rendition of “Enjoy the Silence”) that’s so overdone that one wonders if he’s taking the piss. Naturally, several tunes from the band’s latest long-player are mixed with the fan-favorites and mandatory hits (“Enjoy the Silence”, “Personal Jesus”, “Never Let Me Down Again”) to form the basis of the concerts, although one can’t help but be a little disappointed that no material prior to the 1986 album Black Celebration appears.
The cutoff date for songs performed for Tour of the Universe is justifiable if you consider Black Celebration the proper beginning for the modern, mature Depeche Mode. The band still made killer pop singles packed with hooks after that point (and in fact attained its peak of global popularity afterward), but from that point onwards Depeche Mode became predominantly focused on establishing and maintaining a mood with its carefully concocted soundscapes. Thus Tour of the Universe works almost like an opera: it’s bombastic and upfront, filled with the classic Mode lyrical fixations of guilt and longing, and the songs all function as part of a larger canvas, meaning the weak Sounds of the Universe singles like “Wrong” sound perfectly fine as setup to superior tracks. The set reaches its climax with the forceful execution of the nigh-perfect “you and I against the world” smash “Enjoy the Silence”, wherein the group manages to slip an electro-funk diversion into the song’s outro before returning to the standard arrangement, with the sold-out audience transfixed the entire time. At the opposite end of spectacle, the closing piece “Waiting for the Night” is a surprisingly intimate end to an all-out arena show that nonetheless feels utterly appropriate.
Tour of the Universe is also an illustrative example of the group’s long-harbored rockist tendencies — one would be forgiven if by listening to this set that he wasn’t aware of the fact that Depeche Mode was always at its best as a dance band. This sort of performance environment has always suited rock more naturally than electronica, so Depeche Mode understandably turns up the volume, emphasizes the hooks, and irons out the recording subtleties for grand gestures. What dancey tracks there are — “A Question of Time”, “Fly on the Windscreen” — are few and far between, with “A Question of Time” often relinquishing its body-moving grooves for an intermittent churning rock thrust.
While Depeche Mode only plays up some of its strengths here (and Martin Gore really needs to ease up on the vocal theatrics), Tour of the Universe is a well-executed live recording that’s never dull. Not as mind-blowing as 101, it is an enjoyable rendering of the band’s material in concert nonetheless.