Their name may mean "hurry-up style," but there hasn't been a whole lot of speed in Depeche Mode's music since 1991's Violator. Barring the pair of house-derived singles here, Exciter continues in the same vein as 1997's Ultra -- slow, brooding and stylized to the hilt. As usual, the album tends toward self-serious mystical and sexual clichés ("We're the horniest boys/with the corniest ploys," sings Dave Gahan on "The Dead of Night"), but it's not too hard to forgive them for it. After all, the Mode have been pulling this lyrical shtick since the days of "Master and Servant," and it would be scarier to see them without makeup at this point. You want your Depeche Mode like you want your Folgers: dark and dependable.
Exciter, accordingly, isn't exactly exciting, but under the production of Mark Bell, it does dip its toe into new waters instead of just treading old ones. Bell, who has worked with Björk, purges the last remaining new-wave elements and gives the now-requisite electronics an air of reverbed-out menace, like Suicide gone gothic or a lost Brian Eno-produced Front 242 record. The result is a record that is suave and edgy, as opposed to Depeche Mode's giddy and baroque early days. "The Sweetest Condition" is more perfect than the earlier "The Sweetest Perfection," simultaneously more degraded and more rapturous. Gahan sings his way out of a maze of distortion and industrial-strength noises, and it's this struggle that gives the song its force. As long as the music buzzes like this, it's easy to ignore the 20 years of dust. Yet when the music flags, as it does on mushy do-me ballads such as "When the Body Speaks" and the lazy Manson/T. Rex ripoff "The Dead of Night," it's hard not to notice the band have trapped themselves in a cage with the same handful of songs they had in '86.
But there is one moment when they seem to see a way forward. On the Martin Gore-sung "Breathe," human relationships no longer seem reduced to a kink or theological parable. In his sweet choirboy tenor, he tells the old story of being the very last to know of his partner's disinterest in him, with a swinging melody that Sinatra might have dug if he were a cyberpunk. Over the skipping fuzz bass, his pain echoes convincingly and delicately, and Depeche Mode's age seems not just irrelevant but nonexistent. Depeche Mode have reached their end writing odes to death and love, but they've got a few songs left about the death of love.
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