Artists being embraced by the political movements they most oppose isn’t a recent phenomenon, but you’ve got to feel for Depeche Mode. Right before the release of their fourteenth album, Richard Spencer, the leader of an American white nationalist think-tank, proclaimed that the left-leaning electronic icons were the “official band” of the so-called “alt-right”, a conservative-offshoot movement with a lackadaisical attitude towards hiding the fact that it’s a brand built on white supremacy, populism and a healthy dollop of Nazism. Spencer’s rationale was that the band have played with a “fascist element” in the past, apparently missing the social commentary behind the use of Futurist imagery to go along with music examining the darker effects of religion, working-class industrial life, love and sex, etc.
It’s hard to imagine Spencer listening to Spirit and thinking the band are on his side. ‘Going Backwards’ begins with “We are the bigots, we are not evolved… Ignoring the realities / Are you counting all the casualties” before describing how the ability to kill indiscriminately through drone is not enough for the song’s subject to feel anything inside. Lead single ‘Where’s The Revolution’ changes perspective for a clearer attack on the political climate: “Who’s making the decisions / You or your religion?” It’s far from the deepest lyricism Martin Gore and Dave Gahan have cooked up (get your groan-stocks ready for the trickle-down economics shoutout on ‘Poorman’), but it’s the most topical they’ve sounded in years.
Roughly half the album is set aside for business as usual – ‘You Move’ comes across as a PG and relatively chaste reinterpretation of Violator’s ‘Blue Dress’, and ‘Cover Me’ is a ballad of mutual protection in the face of adversity that would be predictable and glum if it weren’t for Gahan’s still-marvellous voice and an effective claustrophobic atmosphere. Spirit was produced by James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco, whose recent album Welcome to Sideways flitted between techno gurgles cascading across a grand canyon and the panic-stricken noises of a modular synth held in a chokehold. For the most part, Ford takes the second path on Spirit, and while it’s easy to wish for some more space, the tight and sharp production suits the not-so-subtle political edge given songs like ‘Scum’.
Unlike the past few Depeche Mode albums, Spirit does not fade from memory so easily, and the fire lit under their feet is a satisfying turn for a band whose effortlessness and competency was starting to work to their detriment. As clumsy as the political writing can be, there’s potential for the band to strengthen their voice as they continue to develop their fire, which is a rare thing to say for a band on their fourteenth album whose legacy is firmly established.