In the interest of full disclosure: I was disappointed with Sounds of the Universe. I'm listening back to it now for some review prep, and I actually stll feel let down by it. There's something missing there. Around the time I first heard it, I was only a recent(ish) convert to Depeche Mode anyway, but in the four years bridging the gap between it and the band's 13th studio album, Delta Machine, I've delved into their back catalogue, and count that among the band's misfiring albums. On the other hand, their new record is the strongest one that they've written in... oh, about 20 years? Sounds about right. Their move to Columbia Records seems to have sparked something within the trio, and for an album like this to be on the same level as Songs of Faith and Devotion speaks volumes. They seemed a little lost around the turn of the century, for various, well-documented reasons - but they've gradually pulled things back since then. Even if the band look to that album a little too blatantly in places (it can't be just me who feels like 'Angel' sounds like a rewrite of SoFaD's lead single, 'I Feel You', right?), their sound is very much of the now. They're not trying to recapture past glories - some would say that the band still being together in some form after 33 years is a miracle in itself - and to their credit, they're still pushing forward.

Lead single 'Heaven' is arguably the weakest track on the album, the inverse of SotU's lead-off track, 'Wrong' (sounding as great as ever after four years), but that's not a criticism - it just gets a little lost, especially because the fantastic 'Secret to the End' follows, Dave Gahan putting in a towering vocal performance, his baritone lending the song some extra gravitas as it marches towards a huge-sounding finale, proving that the trio still have the dark synth-pop thing down pretty well. Once again, they should be commended for not remaining on autopilot (or, as 'My Little Universe' puts it, 'taking small steps and making progress in a non-specific way') - they're still well able to surprise, such as when the thudding, swaggering second single 'Soothe My Soul' comes barrelling through the more reserved closing segment of the album and lifts it to impressive heights, before setting it back down for the sombre closer 'Goodbye'. Hopefully it actually isn't goodbye from them, as this album shows that they're still packed with ideas.

Producer Ben Hillier does a fine job of bringing these ideas to life; one wonders who the band will choose to work with next, now that the planned trilogy of albums involving Hillier has come to its conclusion (the others being SotU and 2005's Playing the Angel. His influence can be keenly felt at certain points on the album, most notably on the atmospheric and ever-so-slightly menacing opener 'Welcome to My World', the kind of scene-stealing track that seems to consist of everything that the modern incarnation of Depeche Mode have come to represent. Bands on the go as long as they have been are sometimes content to shuffle into mediocrity, but the new record captures the sound of a revitalised band. Since 1993, they've released albums every four years - who knows, we may have to wait until 2017 to hear the next one, but that blow is softened considerably by the feeling that the band are finally back to their best.