It's not often people look to synth-pop bands from the 1980s for political revolution and socially aware commentary. Devo and Soft Cell aren't on speed dial for liberal commentators. But while many acts seem to be wading into the war of North American affairs weary and as if coerced, Depeche Mode feel like the perfect catalysts for conversation about steeped revolutions and political uprisings. From the very beginning, with tracks like "Blasphemous Rumours" and "People Are People", Gore, Gahan, and Fletcher weren't afraid to call people out on their bullshit, or present an opinion that may be at odds with some of their fans. This isn't a pop band writing uplifting anthems à la Coldplay. This is the band that released Black Celebration at the height of their fame, appealing to the depressing entirety of life and casting off bubblegum sentiments and uplifting platitudes.
Still, there's nothing like Spirit in their back catalogue. It's full of venom and rage, and while other bands and artists might dress their protest music in pretty faux-intellectual frocks, Gore and Gahan stare right down the barrel (sorry), emptying their register of any and all emotion and frustration. The titles alone paint the picture of a restless and unhappy band: "Going Backwards", "Where's The Revolution", "The Worst Crime", "Scum", "Eternal", "Poison Heart", "No More", "Fail". There's no "Precious", "Heaven", or "Soothe My Soul" here. And the lyrics match the ferocity. Opener "Going Backwards" is a devastating dismissal of the human race, "We have no evolved / We have no respect / We have lost control". Fourth track "Scum" is full of menace, a slow BPM with heavily distorted vocals calling out an unnamed but thinly veiled enemy. The lyrics are destructive, "And you're kneeling / And you're squealing", "Hey scum, hey scum / What have you done for anyone". There's no named target, but it's not difficult to work out.
The only disappointment is the slightly lacklustre arrangements. The cagey restless aggression of "You Move" and "Cover Me" wears a bit thin over the course of an entire album. This is almost a return to 1980s Depeche Mode, throwing some 8-bit synth into the pot on "Scum", "Poorman" and "No More (This Is The Last Time)". In 2017, Vitalic just released an absolute thumper of an album. Pet Shop Boys are still pushing their sound into the stratosphere. The lyrical content isn't conducive to a huge bells and whistles production, but an outlet valve every now and then wouldn't be a bad thing. If you bought the deluxe edition hoping the remixes might provide some respite, think again. They're even more menacing versions of the original tracks.
The thing about Depeche Mode taking a stand is it'll be heard. It made it to number 5 on the US Billboard 200, and the band has a devoted following in North America, made up of those seeking an alternative to the EDM bromance of Calvin, Avicii, Deadmau5, and more recently Kygo and The Chainsmokers. Judging from interviews and content, this album is aimed squarely at the American political system and Britain's own Brexit disaster. There's no other band in the world like Depeche Mode. It's 36 years since their first album, and they're charting higher, selling more, and doing bigger shows than ever. U2 hasn't built up the same trust capital. The Rolling Stones are just a name. AC/DC is just Angus Young. David Bowie was their only contemporary post-2010. It might come as a surprise that they didn't play it safe at all on Spirit. They didn't plug their synths into Google and type in "electro-smash", they decided to make something that might be difficult to listen to, that's thought-provoking and uncomfortable. If you've followed DM, you'll know playing it safe is not their favoured method of musical exploration.