It’s tough for a band to exist for nearly 30 years and not at some point become a self-caricature. Without a massively restructured sound, new records usually feel like half-assed aggregations of nostalgia. But even in 2009, Depeche Mode’s members are masters of electronic pop, crafting an inimitable sonic atmosphere that almost never sounds dated. On Sounds Of The Universe, the band still challenges itself, although fans of Depeche Mode’s poppier (and more popular) past output might not take to it; there’s no “Enjoy The Silence” here. It’s also slickly clean and delicately processed, which will dismay diehards relentlessly devoted to the band’s rougher days, but the bleak sheen gives the disc a calm, otherworldly chill. Arty without being obnoxious, Universe is a meticulously intentional and cohesive album: Each song requires the context of the whole. From the eerie opener “In Chains” to the angry, confrontational “Wrong” to the hollow flicker of “Corrupt,” Dave Gahan—riding a confidence high since proving he was a competent songwriter on 2007’s solo effort Hourglass—sets a hypnotically measured pace; the soaring “Peace” is one of the band’s most achingly searching songs in years, and the album’s best. With Universe and 2005’s Playing The Angel, Depeche Mode has created back-to-back albums compelling enough to stand up to its past best.
More from The A.V. Club