Reviewed: Don't call them comebacks -- new Depeche Mode, Stevie Wonder and Ashlee Simpson

Published October 18, 2005 10:30PM (EDT)

Depeche Mode, "Playing the Angel"

Hard to believe, but Depeche Mode have been around for almost 25 years now. This newest album, their 12th, is being roundly compared to their last unhesitating success, 1991's "Violator." As Allmusic raves, "There's no doubt this time: Playing the Angel is both the band's best album since 'Violator,'" and the sentiment is shared by the Boston Globe: "'Playing the Angel' is Depeche Mode at its best, its most complete album since 1990's 'Violator.' ... Even after 25 tumultuous years, Depeche Mode sounds fresh and renewed." One possible reason for the new sound is the big shake-up in the song-writing process: "Depeche Mode's unique division of labor has been long established," Rolling Stone (two and a half stars out of five) coolly writes, "with each of the three remaining members having a distinct role: Martin Gore writes the songs, Dave Gahan sings them and Andrew Fletcher shows up for photo shoots and cashes the checks. So the biggest change on the Mode's eleventh studio album is that they tinker with that formula. After Gahan recorded a solo album (2003's 'Paper Monsters') and complained that he wanted to write some of Depeche Mode's material, he ended up with three of the twelve song credits here." Together they've pushed past the quirks that earned them the nickname "Depressed Mode," writes the Guardian: "Beyond the 'pain and suffering' (Gore's inviting words) that mark this (and every) album are big, majestic tunes that prove the old saw about dysfunction being no impediment to a great hookline ... Their dark nights of the soul always produce the shiniest melodies, rather than the Nick Caveish atonality they probably strive for."

That said, the album doesn't contain a lot of surprises. "The CD opens with 'A Pain That I'm Used To,' a gritty, uptempo stomper with a killer chorus that sets the tone for much of the set," says Billboard. "It is followed by the inspired throwdown of 'John the Revelator' and the beeping bump of 'Suffer Well.'" Sound like familiar territory? What you're listening to is "clearly recognizable as DM," says the Los Angeles Times (three out of four stars), "Gahan's dolorous vocals pretty much ensure that, as do Gore's minor-key shifts and blip-centric sonic palette." In fact, the L.A. Times and others locate the album as part of a circa-1985 sound resurgence: "With so many new bands (the Killers, the Bravery) staking a claim on an '80s rock aesthetic and so many old bands (Gang of Four, the Pixies) reclaiming their place, vintage electro-moper Depeche Mode makes a strong bid not to be overshadowed." In this context, the end of the hyped review at Allmusic could be read either way: "It is not the kind of album a 25-year-old band is supposed to make."

Stevie Wonder, "A Time to Love"

It's been 10 years since Stevie Wonder put out his last album, and while the reviews for his newest aren't lacking in enthusiasm, they all tend to sound a lion in winter note, respecting Wonder for the good records that lie behind him if not exactly hopeful for the ones that wait ahead. The Los Angeles Times (two and a half stars out of four) addresses this phenomenon directly, saying that what keeps his career moving is the "considerable music capital" he's built up over the years: "That good will comes in handy every decade or so when Wonder's incessant studio tinkering finally congeals into a completed album. Everybody's happy that he's keeping himself busy, no one comes down hard on him for not creating another 'Innervisions,' a flurry of testimonials rises and fades away, and then everyone goes back to business as usual, the Wonder legacy unaffected by another anonymous addendum." Indeed, the Boston Herald plays out the pattern exactly, simultaneously praising Wonder's past and tentatively calling the album "a disappointment. Not a dud." Further, as the New York Times argues, he may have also fallen prey to Santana syndrome: "The thrill of a Stevie Wonder record is Stevie Wonder, in and of himself, full stop. When he's playing as many instruments as possible in real time, his genius is clear. Working against that principle, though, is the prevailing notion that what a middle-aged artist with the potential to sell millions of records should do at this point in his career is invite truckloads of guests."

So what about the music? "Complain all you want about Stevie Wonder taking his sweet time -- ten years of it in this case -- to deliver a new record," writes Rolling Stone (three stars out of five). "On 'A Time to Love,' the soul giant (and notoriously fussy producer) used that go-slow approach where it really counts: in the grooves." Billboard finds "much to savor" here: "Wonder's key instrument, his distinctive voice, remains supple and pliant. Its elasticity is showcased to full effect on the jazzy 'Moon Blue,' in which he hits -- and effortlessly sustains -- a note most of his peers would skirt." Or, as Rolling Stone puts it, he pulls off enough vocal fireworks "to give most Mariah Carey disciples nightmares." Two songs are singled out by almost every review as bad news -- "Passionate Raindrops" ("gunked up clutter," Rolling Stone) and "Shelter in the Rain" ("too many bland and anonymous pop chord progressions," New York Times). On the flip side, everyone has good things to say about "Please Don't Hurt My Baby." Final assessments? Boston Herald: "When the CD ends after 77 minutes with a title track featuring Paul McCartney on guitar, India.Arie on vocals and a small army of world beat percussionists, you're impressed all over again with the hugeness of Stevie's heart. But you also got to be thinking, 'That took you 10 blinkin' years?'" L.A. Times: "As always, his heart's in the right place, but his pop brilliance has dimmed to the level of mere mortals."

Ashlee Simpson, "I Am Me"

Before her 2004 debut, "Autobiography," came out, Ashlee Simpson was know primarily as little sister to newlywed Jessica. Not long after, she made herself famous by publicly botching a lip-sync job to one of her own songs during a performance on "Saturday Night Live." So when it came time to put out the next album, Ashlee had a lot to prove -- and lose. Rolling Stone (one and a half star out of five) gets right to the point: "Ashlee Simpson's follow-up is a collection of eleven soulless tunes that fail to even qualify as guilty pleasures." The album seems to lack even the authenticity that comes with the truly bad -- "(Y)ou have to wonder: Exactly who is Ashlee Simpson?" writes the L.A. Times (one and a half stars out of four). "Here she tries on different musical personae -- Gwen Stefani, Beyonci, Christina Aguilera -- like so many cute, pleated miniskirts." USA Today (two stars out of four) thinks it might have located her in the April Lavigne department: "Simpson's favorite role, though, is still the sassy but angst-ridden rock chick  a part requiring relatively minimal vocal ability, especially when the guys or gals in the studio booth push the right buttons."

In fact, as the Boston Globe points out, the album belongs more to producer John Shanks than to Simpson, and says he has "outdone himself on 'I Am Me,' which leaps from the speakers with such spirited anonymity a listener is tempted to ignore the irony that saturates every funkified guitar riff and ersatz punk snarl: that Simpson's audaciously titled musical statement of autonomy and defiance is somebody else's clever idea." The L.A. Times noticed, too, but lays some of the blame on Shanks' doorstep: "Producer John Shanks somewhat disguises Simpson's nasal, flat affect with a mixture of icy, new-wave sheen and '80s-style big-rock flourishes, but the songs become so overblown that her attempts to reveal her flawed humanity are drowned in bombast." Even Billboard, which seems to bend over backward to avoid saying anything negative, damns her with faint praise: "Though excessive at times, her recognition of these flaws should comfort young, impressionable fans." The Globe also thinks that it might have been best for Ashlee to stick with her strengths, even if that would mean just singing along: "Simpson recently returned to 'Saturday Night Live,' the scene of last year's lip-syncing debacle, to redeem herself with an unmistakably live vocal. Her braying performance on 'Boyfriend' was incident-free -- and a compelling case for faking it."

-- Scott Lamb

By Salon Staff

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