Depeche Mode should be horribly burnt out or split up by now: They lost their initial songwriter, Vince Clarke, after their 1981 debut; their principal musician, Alan Wilder, after their eighth album; and their sanity in 1995, when singer Dave Gahan became a heroin addict and attempted suicide. It's easy to forget that these Essex, England, unlikelies have been around as long as R.E.M., U2 and Duran Duran. But unlike those titan troupers, they never made an embarrassing album (live discs aside) and never became so huge that they overstayed their welcome. Even at the peak of their late-1980s teeny-bopper popularity, these quintessential synth-poppers somehow remained punk. Lingering in gorgeously melodic, genuine sadness, Gahan, Martin Gore and Andrew Fletcher still have the knack for turning a lifelong bummer into one big black celebration.
But even old reliables have their ups and downs, and Depeche Mode's tenth studio album ranks miraculously high. Produced by Bjork collaborator Mark Bell, Exciter glimmers like a gentle ambient doodle with vocals: The beats are mostly minimal, closer to early Kraftwerk than to current electronica. But because Gore's songwriting is so focused and Gahan's vocal presence is so commanding, the softest songs leap to the foreground like a whisper from a lover.
Although they integrate guitars and orchestrations with greater finesse, the skeletal arrangements leave Gahan no harmonic place to hide, no singalong choruses to coast. Lips pressed against the mike, the rehabbed frontman turns in his most physically intimate, emotionally masterful performances on unearthly ballads like "When the Body Speaks." Yet he also proves himself capable of summoning bygone sleaze on the album's hilariously sullied, sole industrial jam, "The Dead of Night." And on one of Gore's vocal cameos, "Breathe," his wounded choirboy tenor sounds grandly operatic in the Scott Walker lounge-troubadour tradition.
Recent landmark albums by kindred spirits Radiohead and Moby may have rejuvenated their white machine soul, but the Modesters have never kowtowed to trends. Exciter isn't nearly as catchy as hit-packed discs like 1987's Music for the Masses. But from the breathless a cappella opening of "Dream On" to the closing strains of "Goodnight Lovers," Exciter maintains an otherworldly mood and purity of purpose that today's angst-ridden rockers would trade their Jeff Buckley CDs to attain.