Depeche Mode are one of pop's more intriguing units, rarely receiving due credit for two notable achievements.
Firstly, for being the only band other than Pink Floyd to successfully replace their chief songwriter from within the band, and continue on to greater accomplishments; and secondly, for being the only band of the Eighties electropop boom to have parlayed the initial novelty of synth-based music into a huge global following, and sustaining that success throughout the ensuing three decades. Where former peers like the Human League have long been reduced to living off former glories on revival tours, the Mode have gone from strength to strength, stuffing stadia around the world on the back of a continued dedication to musical adventurism.
In 2009, their Tour of the Universe visited the Middle East, Europe (including vast sports venues like the Stadio Olimpico, San Siro and Stade de France), and all corners of North, South and Central America, before looping back for a further few dozen shows in Europe. It has not, however, proceeded smoothly, due to the continuing fragility of stick-thin singer Dave Gahan: a tranche of European shows were cancelled when he was struck by gastroenteritis and the removal of a tumour.
In the light of this, the current batch of UK dates, particularly these O2 shows just down the road from their native Basildon, must be tinged with the relief of homecoming – and indeed, the wave of affection which greeted their appearance seemed more than usually partisan. It's hard, then, to account for why their show left me so unmoved; but I think it had something to do with the sheer measliness of the event, from the low-grade stage posturing of Gahan and the sparkly-jacketed Martin Gore, to the artistically adolescent back-projection graphics (fresh-faced youth and bearded oldie slowly transform into each other via CGI? Whoa!), to the simple lack of musical interest in the arrangements: just because there's not much going on doesn't necessarily make it elegantly minimalist. The shortcomings were epitomised by the balloons released during one song: when Elton John does this sort of thing, you can't move for bloody balloons – it's like being in the kiddies' ball-room at Ikea – but here, the vastness of the Dome lent a particularly bathetic edge to the smattering of around a dozen balloons bobbing fitfully about the audience. When you've just been stung £25 for a few hours' parking, this sort of cheapness just rubs salt into the wound.
The only aspect of the show that wasn't measly was the drumming of Christian Eigner, who kept up a Burundi-esque barrage which, compounded by the terrible echo in the self-proclaimed "world's best venue" (!), effectively drowned out any vestiges of musical finesse in the arrangements – like having a furniture van reversing repeatedly back and forth over a watercolour. The band may believe that it's the chunky, trouser-trembling rhythms of things like "I Feel You" and "Personal Jesus" that are their strongest suit, but for me, the most moving aspects of their oeuvre are the delicate melodies of songs such as "Precious" and "Enjoy the Silence", both summarily ruined by heavy-handedness – the latter transformed here from winsome yearning to football terrace chant.
It's clear that Depeche Mode have come a long way over the past three decades, from electropop teens to something more like stadium goths. And the size, breadth and enthusiasm of their audience, which seems to range across all ages and subcultures, says much about their unbounded appeal; but tonight's show rather left me wistfully wondering whether I didn't actually prefer the naïve teen enthusiasm of those tiny lads sashaying through "Just Can't Get Enough" on Top of the Pops all those years ago.
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