The second collaboration between the cinematic production team and the Depeche Mode frontman loses the element of surprise.
Soulsavers probably could not have made a better choice of vocalist to front their second album. On The Light the Dead See (2012) the Depeche Mode crooner was a great complement to the British production team's cinematic, bluesy, noirish backing tracks. Gahan had released two previous solo albums that charted similar territory. The Light the Dead See, though, benefitted from superior songwriting and an easy, natural chemistry and largely avoided the spotty lyrics which had marred Gahan's Paper Monsters (2003) and Hourglass (2007). It was an unexpected career high point.
Emboldened, Gahan and Soulsavers worked on a follow-up, with a Depeche Mode album and tour in between. For Angels & Ghosts, the working dynamic has been flipped, at least in Columbia's marketing department. Rather than a Soulsavers album with Gahan on vocals, this is a Dave Gahan album, with Soulsavers taking second billing. Maybe the new arrangement is a factor and maybe not, but Angels & Ghosts is nearly as much a disappointment as its predecessor was a pleasant surprise.
As with many sequels, this is a situation where more of the same turns out to be considerably less. Gahan and Soulsavers principal Rich Machin have doubled-down on the gospel backing vocals, church organs, and dramatic arrangements. Yet in doing so they have sacrificed much of the brooding sense of portent that hovered over The Light the Dead See. If this is music for a dusky, backcountry road in the Deep South, it's headed right down the middle of it.
Ironically, the lost edge may be in part because Gahan's and Machin's chemistry is too good, too easy. The upside is winning gospel-pop songs like the rhythmic, charging "All of This and Nothing" and the smoky, scolding "You Owe Me", tracks that sound more assured than anything on The Light the Dead See. But too much of Angels & Ghosts gets bogged down in a downtempo/midtempo gait full of spaghetti western guitar strums and melodramatic strings. Only the stomping, sequined "Shined" manages to get real dirt under its heels and provide a new musical wrinkle, even if that wrinkle leads straight to Gahan's regular band.
The biggest snag with Angels & Ghosts, however, isn't with the music. It's not with Gahan's voice, either, which grows richer by the year and is in fine, magnificently-controlled form here. Rather, it is with Gahan's lyrics. As usual, he goes heavy on religious imagery, and addresses most everything to unidentified troubled souls or would-be friends and lovers. The problem is the long string of clichés and path-of-no-resistance rhymes. Whether he's declaring "I can't see / What you want from me" on "Tempted" or advising "Don't listen to what they say" on "One Thing" without suggesting who "they" are, Gahan can't get through a single track without dropping a clunker or three. In fairness, he delivers these words, however pat, with a true sincerity and earnestness that almost allow him to get away with it. Almost.
Angels & Ghosts is in many ways accomplished and often very pretty. But it's pretty in the way of a postcard, and Gahan's been around long enough and been through enough to warrant something deeper.