New Mode, Same as the Old Mode – DEPECHE MODE COMES TO TOWN WITH A NEW ALBUM, TOUR

Depeche Mode recorded four oftheir albums in Santa Barbara. Anton Corbijn photo
Depeche Mode recorded four oftheir albums in Santa Barbara.
Anton Corbijn photo

Depeche Mode will always be associated with their hometown — the very small hometown — of Basildon, England, but Santa Barbara can lay claim to the band, on and off, since 2001. That’s the first time the band recorded some of its album “Exciter” — with its aloe plant on the cover, very SoCal — in our town. Since then, they’ve recorded three more albums here, most notably 2005’s “Playing the Angel” — entirely created at Sound Design studios downtown — and this year’s “Delta Machine.” Songwriter Martin Gore lives here, and is often seen walking about, and has DJ’d occasionally at clubs.

So their choice to play the Bowl this Tuesday, while in the middle of a massive world tour, is a little thank you to a city they’ve adopted.

Dave Gahan has been through a lot of illnesses since 2009 — there was a long bout with gastroenteritis, the removal of a malignant tumor in his bladder, and problems with his voice. You wouldn’t know it from the album and the tour, where he sounds like the Gahan of old. The band is clean and happy. The new tour is doing well.

Columbia Records photo
Columbia Records photo
 Martin Gore and Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode perform Sept. 15 during the Delta Machine Tour at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida Jeff Daly photo

Martin Gore and Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode perform Sept. 15 during the Delta Machine Tour at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida
Jeff Daly photo
The album, “Delta Machine” reveals the band stuck in a creative rut. Even longtime fans — on forums and review sites — are calling this a “tour album,” something to justify time on the road so the concerts aren’t just nostalgia events. There are some good tracks, even great ones, but there’s also stuff so dodgy, one wonders if the band should hire an editor.

For one thing, the album is just over an hour, reminiscent of the kinds of albums we slogged through in the ’90s. (And the reason that modern bands have returned to 40-45 minute lengths.) It starts off with the minimal drum-glitch-and-vocals of “Welcome to My World,” which again ushers us into Depeche Mode’s dark universe of salvation, hope, redemption, faith, and other familiar Gore themes. Although this sounds like vintage Mode, it also calls up Nine Inch Nails in its chorus. The mix sounds fantastic, too.

But “Angel,” which follows is the kind of track that should have been left off, sounding like a warmed-over track. And that’s how it kinda goes with “Delta Machine,” one decent track is followed by another that is too long and meanders about in some sort of holding pattern. Mr. Gore’s one-lead vocal track — “The Child Inside” — dithers about in a similar fashion.

“Heaven,” however, should be up there with other classic Depeche Mode ballads. It has a great, soaring melody that Mr. Gahan handles effortlessly, and slowly builds to its conclusion. It was wisely chosen as the album’s first single back in January, and should be one of the concert’s highlights. In a similar way, “Soothe My Soul” sounds like vintage Mode, full of sexual menace.

But there’s still a nagging feeling, even in the good songs — we’ve heard this before. “Soothe My Soul” sounds like “I Feel You” and “Personal Jesus.” The blues-electronics of that latter classic track pops up on several other songs, snatches of guitar turned into loops. “Slow” plows the same field, as does “Goodbye,” the album closer. (“Goodbye, again,” sings Mr. Gahan, funnily enough.)

So, okay, there’s a lot of stuff we’ve heard before. But “My Little Universe” is a change, Four Tet-like electronic blurbles, weird Kraftwerkian synth sounds, a spooky Thom Yorke vocal … but ends up sounding new.

Mr. Gahan has said in interviews that this is the final in a trilogy of albums produced by Ben Hillier, and that he never knows when the next album will come out. It puts fans in a weird position: how much should Depeche Mode change? Is it time for a reassessment, or should they not knock a formula that’s led to a spectacular world tour?

Depeche Mode
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Santa Barbara Bowl, 1122 N. Milpas St.
Cost: $58.50 – $124.50
Information: (805) 962-7411, www.sbbowl.com

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