Even as it fills arenas around the world with its army of devoted fans, Depeche Mode just might remain the world's biggest cult band. The passion the band inspires in its faithful isn't all that different than it was in its early days as synth-pop pioneers -- like a well-kept secret writ large -- and if on occasion the group's morose anthems have crept into the mainstream, Depeche Mode has shown little interest in courting new fans. It knows its niche and frequently plays to it, and if it happens to sell millions of albums in the process, so be it.
Even so, Depeche Mode isn't as immutable as it sometimes seems at first listen. Its evolution has been as steady as it has been subtle, like a snake shedding its skin to reveal a slightly different set of scales each time. "Playing the Angel," the group's 11th album, follows 2001's dreamy, slightly laid back "Exciter," and to some extent the new disc exhibits a few similar traits, particularly its subdued, pre-dawn vibe. "Playing the Angel" also follows Depeche Mode singer Dave Gahan's 2003 solo bow, "Paper Monsters," and that, too, informs "Angel," albeit more explicitly.
Although Gahan's rich baritone is inextricable from Depeche Mode, the group's primary creative voice (at least since the early '80s departure of founder Vince Clarke) has been songwriter Martin Gore. Gahan intimated that "Paper Monsters" was partly his way of saying he wanted to play a larger role in the creative process, and with "Playing the Angel" Gore has finally relented, allowing Gahan writing credit on three songs, the best of which, the (relatively) upbeat "Suffer Well," introduces a few new flavors into the Depeche Mode fold, and the other two, "I Want It All" and "Nothing's Impossible," very much in the band's classic mold.
Gahan may be frustrated with his role performing the music of Gore, but on "Playing the Angel" the reportedly rough partnership sounds as simpatico as ever. One reason is that despite middle age and a history of substance abuse, Gahan's singing has never been better. The other is that, especially with a new foil of sorts, Gore remains as adept as ever at finding different ways to express the same old feelings of doom and gloom, with songs such as "John the Revelator," "Damaged People" and "The Sinner in Me" sneaking in winking -- and winning -- nods to Depeche Mode's past glories disguised by some sonic sleight of hand, like shards of distortion or the interplay of plinky guitar and keyboard on "Lillian."
Another factor that keeps the Depeche Mode cult alive is the fact that the group's always been a better singles band than album act, and those familiar with the band via only the hits are just getting part of the picture that most don't have the patience to explore. "Playing the Angel" is no exception in that the first single, "Precious," is the most striking and memorable song on the disc, but Depeche Mode has shown itself increasingly adept at constructing a start-to-finish listening experience.
If the second half of the disc primarily reflects the same spare, icy and ultimately insular textures and arrangements that marked the band's formative '80s work, by the time the final track, "The Darkest Star," fades to silence, it feels like the end of a journey prescribed by something less arbitrary than the end of an LP side or lack of space. It's like an ellipsis leading promisingly to the next page of a surprisingly fruitful career.
Depeche Mode will perform Dec. 9 at the Patriot Center.