RIYL: motherfucking Depeche Mode
On Pack Up the Plantation, the 1985 live album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the band slowly eases its way into “Breakdown.” Petty sings the first line “It’s all right if you love me” just above a whisper, at which point the crowd takes over, singing all the way through the first chorus and even splitting vocal duties between the lead vocal and the “Breakdoooooooown!” backing vocals. It’s exhilarating to listen to, because you can feel the rush the audience felt by getting the chance to be the star. After a few beats, Petty humbly tells the crowd, “You’re gonna put me out of a job.”
Which brings us to today’s lesson. Letting the audience sing part of one song is one thing; forcing them to sing multiple songs is another.
It made sense that Depeche Mode would want to document their 2009 world tour. They were playing to gigantic crowds, and they hadn’t released a live album since 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion Live. With four albums of new material to showcase – though they chose to only play songs from three, skipping 2001’s Exciter entirely – it was time to run the tape recorders once again. Tour of the Universe 20/21.11.09 documents two shows the band played before what looks like the entire population of Barcelona, and you can see why the crowds were so excited. Despite front-loading the set with what feels like half of the band’s most recent album, Sounds of the Universe, Depeche pulled out some gems for this tour, including a whopping four songs from fan favorite Black Celebration. They also had a live drummer and principal songwriter Martin Gore playing guitar almost exclusively during the shows. What’s not to love?
Dave Gahan, that’s what. He’s too busy playing rock star to actually sing the damn songs. Gahan leaves it to the audience to sing far too much – and sometimes makes them sing the chorus twice in the same song – and low-range vocal melodies, even when sung by tens of thousands, cannot stand up to the sound the band is putting out. When the band launches into “A Question of Time,” the crowd is reaching a fever pitch, so when Gahan has them sing the chorus the first time, they’re only happy to oblige. When he forces them to do it a second time, the response is nowhere near as enthusiastic, and you can actually hear the crowd deflating. If you have cameras rolling, and they just captured you killing the crowd’s buzz while you fed your ego, would you really test the crowd’s patience again?
Sadly, the answer is yes…twice. Gahan does it again on “Policy of Truth” and – this is the unforgivable one – “Enjoy the Silence,” the band’s biggest hit. The arrangement of the song is spectacular, with the band launching into a fantastic breakdown, but Gahan will not sing the chorus. Now, this is one thing to watch in person – which we did, because he did the exact same thing when the band played Lollapalooza last year – but it’s another altogether to watch on a DVD, where you’ll be reaching for the Fast Forward button even on your favorite songs. It’s even worse onthe CD, where it just sounds like a karaoke track and the singer is too drunk to read the lyrics on the Teleprompter. If there is one show where Dave should have sucked it up and sung the damn songs, this is the one.
Then there is the matter of their drummer Christian Eigner. His playing is fine, but his snare drum is positively flat, as if the band is too afraid to sound like the rock band they’re pretending to be. They would have been better off giving the bottom end the thump that a live setting demands. As it is, the drum tracks from Music for the Masses – a 23-year-old album – sound harder than what Eigner plays here. The direction of the show is spotty, too, spending far too much time out of focus or, worse, focused on the fans recording the show on their phones (worst, trend, ever).
This was a golden opportunity to showcase Depeche Mode’s staying power and their status as godfathers of electronic music, but Tour of the Universe, despite a great set list and solid performances (when Gahan deigns to sing, anyway), does not cut it. It’s one of those things where you simply had to be there to get the full effect of the experience. If Dave had sung all of the damn songs, this set would be essential. As it is, it’s diehards-only material.(Capitol 2010)