As befits a band whose name can be loosely translated as “fashion dispatch,” Depeche Mode has spent most of their 20-year career flitting from style to style. They started out as foppish New Romantics, remade themselves by the early ’90s as a brooding, synthesized variant of grunge and now, with “Exciter” (Reprise), they’ve segued into the role of sleek modern trip-hopped-up balladeers. But no matter what incarnation they’ve embodied, the British trio (expanded to a septet on tour) cannot hide the big classic-rock band at their core. Even reworked to sound current, the music is arena rock as pompous and goofy as anything by Jethro Tull or Queen.
That doesn’t mean they’re bad — their two-hour show at Staples Center (the first of four Los Angeles area dates) is certainly not boring, but subtlety and originality are simply beyond their grasp.
Following a slow processional with each band member greeted by cheers as they skulked onto the stage, Depeche Mode lurched into “Dead of Night.” The first lyrics intoned by Dave Gahan (“We’re the horniest boys with the corniest ploys”) set the tone for the night. It’s a world view as black and white as Gahan’s and Martin Gore’s respective stage outfits. Adolescently gloomy, the show purveys a kind of existentialism for dummies — the Island of Lost Boys re-imagined as hell, if hell was operated by the owner of hipster hotels like the Standard or Mondrian.
The lighting scheme is elegantly spare: a curtain of tiny red lights occasionally hangs over the stage and the band is lit from below at sharply expressionist angles, throwing shadows on the backdrop, which is bathed in rich pastels. But the special effects, like the band’s lyrics, can be thuddingly obvious. Over the top but without even a hint of irony, the staging is solemn but toothless. Only someone who, like the band, feels that reducing life to a fishtank of goldfish and sharks amounts to incisive commentary could find it deep.
But thousands do, and they are exceedingly vocal in their appreciation. Sold-out house applauds when Gahan pirouettes; they applaud when he takes off his vest; they applaud when he beats his chest like Tim Roth in “Planet of the Apes.” But the evening’s most effective moments are when guitarist Martin Gore takes center stage.
Songs such as “Waiting For The Night” or the torchy “Breathe” have a quiescent, headstrong emotionalism that recalls ’60s legends Scott Walker or Gene Pitney. And “Personal Jesus” is a raucous rocker in the style of the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues.” But the rarely performed “Surrender” should remain that way; it is so bathetically overwrought the song could be comfortably covered by Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston. Perhaps every generation gets the Freddie Mercury it deserves, and the dawn of the 21st century finds itself with the trite, B-movie theatrics of Dave Gahan and Depeche Mode.
In her short, 35-minute set, opener Poe managed to achieve something the headliners were unable to do with their two-hour show: find a fresh way to express anger and angst. Performing songs from her recent “Haunted” (FEI/Atlantic), she is by turns sexy and sad, vulnerable and strong.
Cantering across the stage with a coltish grace, her band ratcheting up the tension, the Los Angeles singer showed she has the potential to become a headliner in her own right.