It ain’t easy being an ’80s icon. When the very name of your band inspires memories of Ronald Reagan and Martha Quinn, it’s almost impossible to remain relevant — unless you’re not afraid to explore new terrain and take artistic risks. While U2, for instance, have done this partly by incorporating electronic effects into their music, Depeche Mode have gone the opposite route. With 1990’s Violator and particularly 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion, the prior decade’s most arena-friendly techno-pop outfit began relying more on real instruments — guitars, primarily — to lend emotional urgency to its stark, computer-generated anthems.
On Depeche Mode’s new album, Ultra, guitars are again prominent — moaning sensuously in the gently funky “Useless,” groaning darkly in the eerily driving “Barrel of a Gun,” wailing over bittersweet strings in the plaintive “Home.” Songwriter Martin Gore has plenty of dark passion to document, having endured the tsoris of singer Dave Gahan’s heroin-related suicide attempt, in 1995, and near overdose last year, as well as the recent departure of multi-instrumentalist Alan Wilder (a number of guest artists help compensate for Wilder’s absence, including former Living Colour bassist Doug Wimbish and pedal steel guitarist B.J. Cole). Perhaps as a result, there are no snappy singles a la “People Are People” or “Enjoy the Silence” here. But moody, pulsating ballads such as “The Bottom Line” and “The Love Thieves” are ideal vehicles for Gahan’s brooding baritone and for the band’s ever-increasing sense of tender intuition.
In contrast, Elegantly Wasted, the latest offering from those aging Aussie pinup boys in INXS, seems like an exercise in nostalgia. INXS haven’t lost their flair for making sexy, streamlined funk-rock confections, but 10 years after “Need You Tonight” hit the top of the charts, the sinuous dance grooves and crackling bursts of guitar in new songs such as “Elegantly Wasted” and “Don’t Lose Your Head” don’t seem very fresh. Elsewhere, INXS dabble in neopsychedelic melodrama (“Thrown Together,” “Give It Up (She Is Rising)”), only proving that ’80s pop stars can be just as adept as their progeny at ripping off sounds from the pre-MTV era. At least Men at Work knew when to call it quits.