This Depeche Mode album is as controversial as when you speak it’s name.
What’s so exciting about it, anyway?
It was released 22 years ago in 2001. Four years prior, Ultra was a successful attempt after drug abuse and Alan Wilder leaving for good. Depeche Mode wasn’t suppose to last after Ultra. They just did a short tour around a Greatest Hits album, and both Dave Gahan and Martin Gore wanted to focus on their new solo careers. Of course the record label Mute just wanted to squeeze another Depeche Mode album from them, considering the name itself makes lots of money. What could possibly go wrong?
Without Wilder, Ultra’s producer was the young Tim Simenon, who focused much more on a dark, evil Fight Club-esque trip hop sound. With Simenon also out of the picture, the right direction would naturally be to reinvent Depeche Mode to an entire new generation. That is, a late Gen-X to early Millennial youth culture into the now popular indietronic sound that Erasure was also doing on 2000’s Loveboat. Imagine glitched up guitars, IDM studders, all in the “organic” feel where live electroacoustics and performance is more important than composition. The young Mark Bell just produced Björk’s Homogenic album to rave reviews. If Depeche Mode could do their own versions of “Hunter” or “All is Full of Love,” as Daniel Miller would state, and to paraphrase, they would make an “electronic soundscape and statement like no other.”
But is sounding so new and innovative so important to an electronic synthpop band? They are making pop sounds, after all. Radiohead’s Kid A was the rage, and Mark Bell could turn Depeche Mode on to this new and “exciting” (pun indented) zeitgeist and fad.
Oh, how it didn’t age well.
Exciter to this day is often criticized as Depeche Mode’s worse album. At least they still play “Wrong” from 2009’s Sounds of The Universe, which mimicked the youthful sound chasing of Exciter. And even a music video was produced by avant-garde comedian, Tim Heidecker, for Hole To Feed, and the band wasn’t even in the video! (And I could go on to argue that Sounds of The Universe is also equally bad, if not, just as bad as Exciter with apology). The only redeeming factor of Exciter is that Depeche Mode tour extensively to make up for poor sales on the album. I admire the tour than the album itself. For that reason, Exciter is a red-headed step child, where you unconditionally love the album as time progresses, realizing that Depeche Mode’s fuck up isn’t as bad as the green foxtail on the cover.
I mean, an anonymous fan did get a pretty bad tattoo of the album cover itself. And no one can immediately point out and say, “that’s Depeche Mode!” during sex.
Whatever your opinion on Exciter is, it’s an underwhelming project, and sounds nothing like Depeche Mode. The track listing is schizophrenic, without any concern for climax or single chasing. The songs can either be too long, too short, or just too redundant. The electronic improvisions and sound textures by Bell do take you somewhere else, but the murky and dark sound makes you utterly confused, and you can never point out if these tracks are by Sigur Rós, Massive Attack, or The Postal Service. The mood constantly swings, but always remains depressed and intimate like the work of Mark Hollis and later Talk Talk. It’s a half-ass version of Bogdan Raczynski or Aaron Funk being an eccentric, eclectic, electronic, Leftfield goofballs of random IDM glitching in a brand new Wes Anderson film.
Bad things aside, what does stand out from Exciter?
The lead single, “Dream On,” is forgotten. Depeche Mode has never played that song since. “I Feel Loved,” is copycat version of “I Feel You,” but for douchebag clubs. At least “Goodnight Lovers” is an attempt to be Björk’s "All is Full of Love.” But it suffers from too much silence and the pretentious nature of the then exotic synthesizer worship. Perhaps “Freelove” is the stand out single, where the album cut is too long, and the single version is more catchier. Again, Depeche Mode has never played Freelove since. Exciter was doomed to the start of it’s release, because the next album in 2005, Playing The Angel, sold quadruple that amount of sales from Exciter. Why so? Playing The Angel was mimicking the older sound of Depeche Mode, and many older fans resonated. Exciter was a byproduct of the subcultural fads of 2000. It goes to show Depeche Mode has a brand, and the consumers wanted the past, not the supposed “new” style of trying to make grandpa hip.
In my opinion, some of the best tracks on the album are “Freelove,” “Shine,” “When The Body Speaks,” “Comatose,” and “I Am You.” Not much. Everything from “Lovetheme” (And I’m still confused why the gave the interlude such a boring name), “Easy Tiger,” and “The Sweetest Condition” (Not the classic, “The Sweetest Perfection), are mere transition tracks with odd compositions. I always hated how Comatose ends, goes into the upbeat “I Feel Loved,” and then goes back to another Martin Gore track, “Breathe,” without any consideration of emotional leads and moods. This is the only Depeche Mode album that has two back to back Gore tracks, with one ugly Gahan embarrassment right in the middle. The constant “in the mix” start and stopping of each track is annoying, and half the songs feel utterly incomplete, as the entire album was meant to be listened to in one sitting, as a single song. When you try to find something catchy on this album, it laughs back at you, gives you a few glitch farts, and abruptly ends, like a bedroom demo not realized into a better song. Mark Bell was right to assume that the band didn’t do anything on this album. And I’m still curious if Andrew Fletch had any contribution on this piece.
By the way, these are the two official back covers of Exciter:
I like it. It’s the band is mocking the listener by making the statement, “We don’t give a fuck what we make, and our name saves us from any criticism. Might as well go out swimming, or take a picture during dinner time at a fast food restaurant.” The band already knew the album was too much, and they couldn’t save grace further. What’s suppose to be intimate and try to relate to young people of the time, becomes sheer laziness instead.
The album ends with a calm, goodnight “shhhhh,” the same way it begins with an inviting whisper of “can you feel, a little love?” An uroboros eats itself back into silence.
Many fans still swear on this album being great. The truth is, it’s just not Depeche Mode. It would be better off as a solo release, or an entire new side project. The transition from the darkness of Ultra into the lightheartedness of Exciter is a perplexing one at best.
It’s also the fist Depeche Mode album to be broken up into two LPs for a vinyl release, creating an unfinished and awkward vinyl flipping from The Sweetest Condition to Side A, to When The Body Speaks to Side B (And the same could be said about I Feel Loved to Breathe). Maybe the harsh “The Dead of Night” could of been a single. But instead, they put it between two soft tracks. Again, what’s up with these mood swings? The album was meant for CD, not vinyl.
My assumption is that the band was suppose to break up after Ultra, yet the label and producers around them insisted they make a new album together again. They didn’t get it right till Playing The Angel. Things do get fuzzy starting with Sounds of The Universe and the equally confusing Delta Machine. I won’t lie. It was a declining transition into Memento Mori. And it’s hard to choose the better opener between In Chains or My Cosmos Is Mine. Both sound exactly the same in a decade period. And Don’t Say You Love Me really reminds me of When The Body Speaks. Everything really goes back to the spare sounding Exciter and it’s mutant children hereafter. Memento Mori is stuck in it’s own minimal wave clout chasing. Exciter is funnier because the turn of the 2000’s era is perfectly capture in a single album. Half those “young” fans are now hitting their mid 40s or 50s and stuck in a time where internet forums were considered innovative.
I always come back to Exciter when I need inspiration. I always ask myself every time I get done listening to an hour of broken electronic and Gahan’s smooth singing, “why did they even think this was a good release?” Art can be intimate when it wants to, and break the rules out of nowhere. Exciter does this in a way that you take pity on the album, and actually try to find the little good things in it. But nonetheless, Exciter is universally panned as their worse album.
In my own music endeavors or artistic composition, I am always curious how can improve upon Exciter and make my own version. Some asshole out there who has oppositional defiant disorder will try and argue that “Exciter is their best album ever” after being motivated by this written criticism here. It goes to show that if you tell someone what is good and what is bad, they will only take in what is good for their own hug box self-destruction. Exciter is subjective, but there is an objective truth the album is not a Depeche Mode release. You have to be crazy enough to think it’s good, when really it’s a whole lot of pretentious electronic meandering.
I have done a video before on this album. I still think about how bad it was since the first time I listened to it. I can think of many more things to say about it, but this should be enough on the surface level.
I remember driving over to Virgin Megastore after school to buy Ultra on cassette tape