Though we haven’t been treated to a new album from Depeche Mode since 2013’s Delta Machine, there’s been plenty of public activity from the veteran synth-pop makers of late. Back in the spring, founding member and main songwriter Martin Gore opted to go solo for a pleasantly plinking electronic LP under the name of MG. To close out the year, Depeche Mode’s brooding, baritone-voiced vocalist Dave Gahan has stepped aside from the famous UK group for an extra-curricular collection of his own: Angels & Ghosts. It’s the second time Gahan has teamed up with gospel-inspired English production team Soulsavers, having appeared on that act’s 2012 effort The Light the Dead See, but this time around they’re officially sharing the marquee.
The album title should be a good indication of what to expect from this latest pairing. All told, Angels & Ghosts’ nine songs present an eternal struggle between light and dark, feelings of both wretchedness and absolution, and the concept of two imperfect parts producing a holy union. It rises from harrowing depths of desperation towards a shining, redemptive light. But this isn’t exactly feel-good music.
Despite some of the record’s glummest moments, “Shine” baptizes us from the beginning. It comes smeared in swamp-thick slide guitar, but opens wide up with a determined stomp-and-clap rhythm and a halo’s glow of choir sounds as Dave Gahan uses his famously throaty croon to welcome us into the LP. “There’s light here,” he says warmly, “and it shines on you.”
Next up, however, is “You Owe Me,” which sends Gahan on a downward spiral. Cold, disheveled and “blue as your eyes,” he spends his time in the solemn but soulful blues lounge ballad trying to keep himself together. Like much of Angels & Ghosts, it’s a song about faith. Here, it’s placed in a figure “so easy to hold, but so hard to please.” It’s a damned doomed place to be.
“All of This and Nothing” is likewise devotional, but it’s hard to tell what the payoff is for Gahan’s haunted narrator. A highlight of the record, it comes equipped with a thunderous rumble of snare and tom-toms, a revelatory wash of church organ, and a teary-eyed string section. As this all conspires behind the frontman, he alludes to himself as “the dirt beneath your feet.” That’s not necessarily derisive, though, as he’s also described himself as “all you need.” Like a guiding path of gravel or a streak of light peeking out of heavy cloud-cover, he’s here for you. Whether you realize it or not.
While sentiments like that can be more than a little overwhelming, there’s a more reserved romanticism on tracks like “One Thing.” A relatively minimalist piano ballad, it finds Gahan willing to stay in for the night with his sweetie, putting a straight-faced twist on the now ubiquitous “Netflix and chill?” via his softly sung: “we can watch those tasteless shows on our TV.” It’s a little goofy, but his heart’s in the right place.
On a sonic front, Soulsavers stick to a theme on Angels & Ghosts, generally backing up the vacationing Depeche Mode singer with an organic whirl of slippery six-string leads, cinematic violin swipes and more. Sometimes it plays a bit too traditional. “Don’t Cry,” for instance, offers one of the record’s most straight-forward, rock-geared arrangements to support Gahan’s tale of being lost in a “kingdom of fear.”
More stirring is the dramatic finale, “My Sun.” It starts off barebones via spacious plunks of a piano and a rattlesnake’s quiver of tremolo guitar. Though initially quite isolated, the track begins to swell as Gahan sings, understandingly: “I feel your sorrow, I feel your pain / Behind the darkest clouds the sun always shine again.” By song’s end, a mix of brass, strings, and a heavenly choir will lift you up high. Maybe this is feel good music after all.