Ultra review, New Musical Express

Seventeen years together, 30 million albums sold, and here comes another to crank the profit margin one notch higher. Except this time, it's not _just_ another Depeche Mode album, because if it were it wouldn't arouse such ghoulish fascination. 'Ultra' is more than that, it's the culmination of a festering melodrama that could have resulted in death, but in the end settled for a near-fatal heart attack and some lengthy cold turkey.

This album is at least partly the product of one of the most harrowing rock'n'roll sagas in recent memory. It's the tale of an unassuming quartet transformed into a colossal financial machine designed to bring gravitas to the masses: four cherubs from Basildon who were lauded as deities in America - only to discover they couldn't handle it. Kinkier than U2, but not as perverse as Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode spent the early part of the '90s driving their juggernaut of angst across the States in an increasingly frenzied attempt to obliterate all memory of their early career. And it proved startingly successful, because when the time came to start recording this album they had transformed beyond all recognition: they'd become farcical Sunset Strip burnouts.

Singer Dave Gahan was hauling his body around LA shooting it full of heroin, coke and water, Alan Wilder had acrimoniously quit the band, and everyone else was back in London trying to write new material. As backgrounds to writing albums go, this was one of the most traumatic. Yet the result is not a sleazy electro classic, but a near replica of past achievements. 'Ultra' is neither an 'Exile on Main Street' orgy of sprawling excess nor an introspective of personal tragedy - and suffers because of it.

That, however, shouldn't be any surprise. Gahan might have lived the life, but Martin Gore wrote the songs - and before Gahan went AWOL, this was meant to be the most ambitious project yet. He might have been initially inspired by the no-smiles austerity of Kraftwerk and DAF, but this time around he intended to make an album that encompassed an entire century's worth of music, everything from blues and gospel right through to country.

There's not much evidence on Ultra, however, that such a grandiose scheme ever got off the ground. For all the crackling ambient synths and treated guitars, this is a perversely _comforting_ Depeche Mode record. The choice of collaborators is impeccable (Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit plays on 'The Bottom Line', Anton Corbijn did the cover and producer Tim Simenon added the contemporary hip-hop sheen), but the music remains as creepingly familiar as ever. There is no dramatic reinvention, and as such we're left with an album that's every bit as flawed as its predecessors.

If these songs are about Gahan's decline as seen through Gore's eyes, then they're written in such blank and generalised terms as to be almost worthless as insights into his condition. As usual, Gore's songs feed us a revolving roster of crying souls, burning bodies and martyred lovers - and, as usual, it's vaguely intriguing, but hardly essential listening. Indeed, the inclusion of a jazz pastiche entitled 'Jazz Thieves' tells you much about the sort of album that Gore has constructed.

Still, once you've acclimatised to the absence of documentary distress and radical innovation, there's plenty of scope to admire Gore's typically gloomy preoccupations and gleaming, hi-tech song structures. 'Barrel of a Gun''s brutal dissection of addiction, the plaintive steel guitars of 'The Bottom Line' and the scuffed beats and thudding cacophany of 'Useless' are all the result of Depeche Mode's ever-expanding awareness of their craft and their darkly sophisticated use of technology.

But it's still all to clinical. Issues are skirted, poetry is attempted and we're left clutching another instalment of stadium-orientated angst, at a time when we were expecting reflective intimacy. The needle rarely comes anywhere near this record: four years away and you'd never know anything had gone wrong. This just sounds like business as usual. Against all the odds, 'Ultra' _is_ just another Depeche Mode record.

See you at Madison Square Garden in six months then. (6) [out of 10]

James Oldham

New Musical Express, April 9th 1997

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