Thursday, July 30, 2009

It doesn't matter if this all shatters - nothing lasts forever...

On Tuesday I took a glorious road trip up to Virginia with a troika of fabulous women to see Depeche Mode's Tour of the Universe. The road trip itself probably merits a note, but apparently some things that happen in Manassas also stay in Manassas... Those of you who have accepted dares to jump fully clothed into swimming pools are on the right track.

But the reason we got in the souped up minivan was to see DM, and see, hear and feel them we did. I can't lie: for more than twenty years I've had a very clear idea of what an amazing DM show must be like, because, well, 101, anybody? And from the moment we made these plans, I forced myself to come to terms with the fact that there was no way Dave, Martin and Fletch would ever live up to that ideal. It's my fault: I didn't go see them in '87. Or '89, for that matter. But I realized even more so after Dave sprouted his tumor this spring, that at this point there's no telling when or if DM will tour again. So it was important for me to see them, if only to fill a gaping hole in my cherished eighties alternative identity.

Sounds Of The Universe is not going to be counted among the better DM albums. I'd put it in the range of Songs Of Faith And Devotion, or Exciter. There's some decent material there, but it doesn't really come close to the songwriting, production, or performance that made DM legend. It's remarkable how many of the tracks can be interpreted as retreads of earlier, better songs. That's okay; I have made peace with the simple truth that shortly after Violator, DM left some ideas behind and took up other ones in their place. They wanted to rock, instead of pop. They wanted to be men who had relationships (however tortured) instead of boys who had sex (however kinky.) They wanted to strip their sound down instead of layer it up. Not what I would have wanted, but I still have seven amazing albums (and a few handsful of additional singles) that are pretty much in a league of their own, so no hard feelings.

When I looked at the set list for this tour, the writing was on the wall: it was going to be one third new album (no surprise), one third nineties DM (most of which I could do without) and one third eighties DM that was going to be worth the price of the ticket three times over. I still count that as a win. No point in pining for things that will never happen - if they ever play 'Get the balance right' or 'Shake the disease' in concert again, it will probably be the apocalypse. And at least those were singles; the album tracks I'd love to hear...

But I was there to enjoy myself (as were the troika of fabulous women) and we definitely exceeded our expectations. As tempting as it is to suppose that DM is a studio band who have to figure out how to make their music work for an arena, the truth is that quite a few of the new album tracks sounded better live than they do on the recording, largely due to a seriously beefed up rhythm section. The tour drummer gets a serious workout and does some fantastic work in the zone where tribal and industrial aesthetics intersect; his efforts turned several second-rate songs into real stompers.

Another thing I hadn't counted on was Martin playing guitar for ninety percent of the show. I think he played keyboards twice, and he sang two other songs without playing anything, but the rest of the time he was on the electric guitar. Despite seven keyboards and a gazillion LEDs, this was an industrial rock show, and the songs they pulled from the back catalog were clearly chosen to fit that concept. Three tracks from Songs Of Faith And Devotion? 'It's no good'? Intriguing on paper, but in concert they were all pushed through that Nine Inch Nails mold to play up the muscle and downplay the melody. And most of the eighties choices worked the same way. No complaints there; 'Fly on the windscreen' and 'A question of time' are dark and hard, so they might as well be played that way.

But it helped to explain why virtually nothing from the first three albums made it into this show. As much as I would have loved to hear them, all the bouncy synthpop early singles would have sounded like, well, like Peter Bjorn & John, the likable but completely fluffy opening act, the choice of whom makes even less sense now that I've seen the show. And it helped to explain why the slow songs they did include - only two incredibly conventional ballads from the new album - were the only ones they really could have done; the more emotional, delicate, better options would have sounded fey in this context, and despite all the vintage video footage to the contrary, DM are not interested in looking fey this year.

It is clear that Dave's role model as a performer is now Mick Jagger. Half of his dance vocabulary is literal quotations of Jagger's signature moves. (Unfortunately, the other half come from that mortifying scene early in The Princess Diaries when a pre-makeover Anne Hathaway gyrates horrifically in the middle of an empty ballroom. Nothing to say.) It is sexy, but it is clear that this man is never going to be heard singing "Hey you're such a pretty boy" (while Martin warbles "P-R-E, double-T-Y" in the background) from the Vince Clarke days ever again.

The bottom line: having made this choice, to be an aging industrial rock act, DM do it quite well. After twenty five years, Dave knows how to work an audience as well as Jagger or Hutchence, and DM are a well-oiled machine on stage. Oddly, the one who seemed to be caught slightly off guard was Fletch. He would go for a song or two looking pretty much like their tour keyboardist to his right; playing and not doing much else. And then he would look up, as if to say, "Hey, I like this song!" which would be followed by a slightly confused "Whoa, what am I doing up here?" followed by some very audience-member-esque hand pumps, as though he'd completely forgotten that he had any responsibility for what was going on. Quite amusing.

The first half of the show was passable; after Dave's break (Martin singing those two forgettable slow songs) things ramped up considerably in the second half. And then came the encores. I'm only going to mention 'Strangelove' because honestly, I would have paid $50 for those five minutes alone. Wisely, when it comes to the classics, DM do not try to fix something that is clearly not broken. We got an amped up version of the single, and that was exactly what we wanted. And the troika and I danced like it was 1987 all over again.

If I were to quibble further, I was struck repeatedly by how many of the songs seemed to be slightly under tempo. 'Policy of truth' and 'It's no good' lagged just a little; I'd urge them to turn the metronome up three or four beats a minute on those and even the rest of the mid-tempo tracks. And I will diagnose one serious miscalculation, which came in the very last encore. 'Waiting for the night' is a slam dunk for your final encore if you are confident that you have the audience in the palm of your hand, and they are going to let you go out with a sublime whisper instead of a bang. I expected them to play it somewhat like the classic 'A forest' closer from the best Cure shows: eventually strip it down to that signature bass line (or, in this case, that signature "Whoa-oh-oh--oh") repeated over and over, and let the audience milk it themselves long after everyone has left the stage. But they just played it, skipped the "Whoahs" entirely, and turned on the lights. It didn't land, and it felt like a missed opportunity.

But it's a great show, and hats off to Dave for picking up three weeks after having an invasive surgery; there was no way I would have guessed anything had been wrong based on his no-wiggles-barred performance. The audience has aged right along with the guys in the band, and anyone who insists their best days aren't decades in the past is deluding themselves. But I had a blast, and in 2009, I got the best DM show I could have reasonably hoped for.