After pushing deep into rock territory with 2005's "Playing the Angel," Depeche Mode has returned to its roots - its electronic, bleepy-bloopy synth-pop, dance-floor roots - for "Sounds of the Universe" (Capitol), with impressive results.
Using the simple vintage synthesizers they started out on provides a lot of familiar sounds, but, thanks to Dave Gahan's growth as a singer and songwriter and Martin Gore's evolving songwriting and layering of melodies and rhythms, Depeche Mode keeps moving forward.
"In Sympathy" harks back to the "Music for the Masses" days in sound, especially when Gahan and Gore harmonize, but the streamlined lyrics and new restraint in Gahan's voice make the combination even more potent than in their heyday. By pairing it with the meditative "Peace" and "Come Back," which takes what is essentially a blues song with the guitar riffs replaced by electro-squibbles, they give their internal quests for serenity and intergalactic spin.
But there are potential pop hits, too. The stomping "Wrong," which is also kind of electro-bluesy, is their strongest single since "I Feel You," while "Hole to Feed" makes it clear Gahan can now hold his own with Gore in the songwriting department.
Early on, few would have pegged the "Just Can't Get Enough" boys to be one of new wave's most successful standard bearers, trailing only U2 in scope and sales, but the arena-ready anthems and clever experiments of "Sounds of the Universe" show that Depeche Mode is not just still hanging around, but continuing to improve.
DEPECHE MODE Sounds of the Universe
THE GRADE A-
BOTTOM LINE Turning 30, Depeche goes back for the future
Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant's dry, droll delivery lets him get away with whatever he wants, and "Yes" (Astralwerks) is no exception. In the course of the sprawling "Yes," Tennant spouts French ("Legacy"), reunites with guitarist Johnny Marr (for the very Electronic-sounding "Building a Wall") and delivers fine one-liners like, "You don't have to be beautiful, but it helps," from the single "Love Etc.," while synth-wiz Chris Lowe builds elaborate backdrops that help them make sharp-elbowed points about culture and consumerism. Crafting such catchy critiques is no small feat, but the Pet Shop Boys make it sound effortless.
PET SHOP BOYS Yes
THE GRADE B+
BOTTOM LINE Ambitiously elegant, personal synth-pop