Soulsavers, 'The Light the Dead See' (Mute)

8
The Light the Dead See
Critical Mass
Release Date: May 22, 2012
Label: mute

by Barry Walters

There was a time not so long ago when you were automatically denounced as "faggy" or "uncool" (or, at least, "pop") if you defended electronic acts like Depeche Mode. Yet the band's concerts were always far more rock'n'roll than most actual rock shows, mostly thanks to frontman Dave Gahan, who commands an audience with the all-consuming joy of a Michael Jackson or a Freddie Mercury. No matter how fast and furiously he spins like a leather-clad dervish, the stage clearly remains where he feels safest, where he most effectively shares Something to Believe In. For years, the mutual commitment between Depeche and their fans was nearly religious, and that was way before Gahan grew out his hair and whiskers like Jesus; before he became a junkie; before it became obvious during the mid-'90s Songs of Faith and Devotion era that something was seriously wrong; before Gahan attempted suicide, then months later OD'd and nearly died.

For decades, that sequence of events — and the spiritual crisis it prompted — has been the subtext of Depeche Mode albums and Gahan's solo jaunts, but with The Light the Dead See, it becomes the primary text. Soulsavers are an English production duo somewhat akin to Massive Attack, but instead of focusing on beats and Brit divas/MCs, Rich Marchin and Ian Glover prefer guitars and American rock slingers like Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan, Spiritualized's Jason Pierce, and Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes. Several of these guys have battled substance issues, and although drugs aren't ostensibly what Soulsavers are about, the hole that one struggles to escape from after bottoming out most certainly is. It's not surprising that Gahan was a fan, and after he asked them to open for Depeche in Europe 2009, the seeds were sown for this full-length collaboration.

From its first bouts of howling harmonica to its final stinging sighs, The Light the Dead See plays like a one-man spaghetti western, and does so far more successfully than Danger Mouse's recent Rome, an equally operatic album, which also featured the work of Los Angeles film composer Daniele Luppi, who draws on his Italian heritage through exacting homages to soundtrack maestro Ennio Morricone. To say that the Soulsavers/Luppi alliance on The Light is over-the-top would be an understatement; had it not been grounded by serious subject matter, this would be camp of the highest magnitude. Either way, it's not for everyone: The mere presence of the word "God" on an album — let alone on a track entitled "Presence of God" — is likely to make some people nervous the same way that Gahan's Depeche-mate Martin Gore prompted squirms in some quarters with his S&M halter and leather shorts.

Gahan penned the lyrics and his words are rarely allegorical or wry (unlike Gore, who still writes most Depeche songs and suggested years ago, in defiance of his snappier, cheerier synth-pop peers, that God has a sick sense of humor). Instead, these songs read as prayer-like dispatches from a dark, sometimes clumsy, but always sincere place. There's a "you" he sings to throughout that occasionally takes finite shape: "Gone Too Far" eulogizes an embattled friend who didn't bounce back with "I knew you were just like me / Intoxicated, struggling to breathe." But mostly this "you" is left open-ended; it's up to us to figure out if he's singing to a lover, an undefined higher power, an inner demon, or just a pure being at his core. "I can't stay another day in here with you / I feel like my time is running out," goes one of his more declarative statements, but in the context of so much soul-searching, it's unclear if he's confronting a lover or a false self that, like his well-publicized addictions, must be kept in check continuously.

The Light is transparently the work of a guy who's undergone a recovery program or three, but Gahan's personal struggle enriches this record to a greater degree than previous Soulsavers collaborations. While damaged dudes like Lanegan and Pierce got mileage out of the self-abuse that ravaged and deepened their vocal cords, Gahan's voice is strikingly immaculate here. He doesn't preach, nor does he need to: The clarity of his croon at age 50 speaks volumes. More importantly, he employs it with disarming warmth and zeal. "There's a man that I should be," he sings in "Presence of God," leaning into key, precisely articulated words in his inimitable Depeche mode, but with that extra dose of passion that transcends the struggle his words encapsulate. "You can't shake me, you can't take me / So set me free." Despite the claustrophobic drama embodied in Luppi's overripe orchestration and Marchin and Glover's brooding, arpeggiated guitars, Gahan is unmistakably unfettered here; he cries with the wind that blows the tumbleweeds.

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