Playing The Angel
t starts with a siren. A howling, distorted thing that beats at the ears, tugs anxiously at the sleeves of transfixed gawpers and gestures frantically toward the shelters—toward safety. Is it a warning or a call to arms? It’s neither. It’s both. It’s a great big woe-missile directed straight towards your emotional centre, launched in spectacular, bombastic fashion from The People’s Republic of Angstania. Mutual destruction isn’t just assured, it’s mandatory. The fortunate will be consumed quickly, the rest left to deal with the inevitable fallout: love, pain, sex, more pain, religion, and suffering. Stop trying to duck and cover—now is the time to fuck and recover. Because Playing the Angel is just that good.
Let’s take a trip beyond the opening seconds and crash headlong into a triptych of tracks, united in their noble refusal to let Depeche Mode fall foul of comments regarding aging obscurity. It seems that since the heady days of Violator the combination of theatrical style and gorgeous hook-laden melody have been apart far too often. “A Pain That I’m Used To” is but the first step in putting this to rights—thrashing with fire and noise amidst crunching vocal hooks, symbolising the start of something special. Yet we cannot stop here. It is time to press onwards, through the stark warning to those who would elevate the name of John above Jesus in their worship and forget the lessons of history. Through “John The Revelator,” the pounding, pulsating, single-in-waiting (we can hope) and on at a canter to “Suffer Well”—proof that Dave Gahan’s songwriting fingers should have been set free long ago. Three songs. Three masterpieces of electronica. ‘Masterpieces,’ yes; because Playing the Angel is just that good.
Whilst a stand-alone trinity might be strangely appropriate for a band that deals so freely in religious imagery, the quality does not dip for the next thirty-odd minutes. Lead single “Precious” has been delicately bothering the airwaves for some weeks already, and perhaps appears a curious promotional choice when placed beside more immediate recordings. Here though, the gentle fragility of the tune, matching its theme of childhood protection, slips fluidly into place. Elsewhere, Martin Gore soars through “Damaged People” sounding like the most damaged person of all (or a somewhat unhinged uncle, at least) and the second Gahan-penned effort, “Nothing’s Impossible” provides even further delight. A song of hope in the face of relentless real-world drudgery and disappointment; sung low as the track moodily throbs around it, as if fighting a perpetual civil war against its own message of optimism. And there’s more, there’s so much more. From the brief instrumental interlude of “Introspectre” to the extended crawling gloomfest of “The Darkest Star,” every moment sparkles with devilish glamour. Every moment screams to be played a little bit louder and a little bit longer; because Playing the Angel is just that good.
Cover your ears now. Not to block out the sound—that would be pure folly—but to gain entrance to new, deeper layers. Headphones can highlight all manner of missed details from the most mundane of listening experiences; in this case, they reveal a host of secrets concealed barely beneath the surface. Subtle backing vocals, harmonious tones and trills lurking in places the ears have skipped during a casual listen, the sheer size of the thumping drums used on “Macro”; beautiful nuggets now panned gradually to the top of the mix. Of course full enjoyment can be gleaned without this frivolity, it merely provides an additional surprise. That’s the kind of album Playing the Angel is; because, as may have been mentioned, Playing the Angel is just that good.
When a record refuses to leave the stereo for days on end. When a record nags and pesters the brain to play it just once more. When a record insists that you take the trouble to sample it through various different media—these are the familiar signs of something rather magnificent. It’s that simple. So it’s worth reminding everyone that Playing the Angel is: