Playing the Angel, from 2005, constituted a muscular return to form for Depeche Mode, but set a standard that Sounds of the Universe struggles to live up to.
For much of its course, it features fairly routine Mode fare like "Fragile Tension", in which the mysteries of attraction are decked out in grimly fatalistic techno riffs, or standard footnotes-to-Kraftwerk electro exercises like "Peace", where the apparent desire to seek a Zen state seems somewhat ill-served by hubristic sentiments like "I'm a living act of holiness". The album opens well, with a minute of abstract electronic musique concrete leading into the lascivious electro-funk of "In Chains", a typical expression of sexual obsession built from looming organ tones and a few carefully placed swells of wah-wah guitar. The single "Wrong" is another standout, its admission that "There's something wrong with me chemically/Something wrong with me inherently" lashed to a forbidding Krautrock-infused electropop. The lighter, liquid texture of "Little Soul" offers a pleasant interlude, as does the brief "Spacewalker"; but elsewhere, the pretty pop progressions of "Perfect" and the Euro-thriller crooning of "Jezebel" sound like pale reflections of more glittery former glories, too insincere to work with the once engaging innocence of yesteryear.
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