About 15 seconds into Recoil’s dark and unsettling new album, Liquid, all questions about Alan Wilder’s departure from Depeche Mode in 1997 are answered. Something must’ve been simmering inside the man for years and finally reached a boiling point. It spilled over in ’97 onto Unsound Methods, Wilder’s first post-Mode Recoil release (1+2, Hydrology and Bloodline all appeared during Mode’s breaks from recording and touring). It seems to have cohered into a dish all its own on Liquid, an album rife with high points and contradictions that belong uniquely to Wilder and have nothing to do with his former self.
The most glaring of these have to do with the band’s identity. Recoil is unquestionably Wilder’s project; he conceives the albums’ themes, writes the music, slaves away at the mixing desk and — here’s where the contradictions begin to creep in — corrals his collaborators, of whom there are many. Because, while this is Wilder’s band, no single track on Liquid features Wilder alone; every song spotlights a guest vocalist, from the creepily alluring Nicole Blackman to the peerless Diamanda Galas. And though the final product is excellent, cohesive, thought-provoking and unquestionably of higher critical merit than anything D’Mode ever attempted, Wilder’s compulsion to collaborate leaves one wondering what he’s hiding from. He’s stepped into the limelight, only to fade back into the shadows.
And Liquid has shadows aplenty in which Wilder might lurk; the album further exhibits his fascination with the dark side of human nature, into which Wilder dipped his toes on previous Recoil outings (1992’s Bloodline and 1997’s Unsound Methods). Loosely bound together by two themes — a man’s recollection of his life, triggered by his involvement in a life-threatening airplane crash (an event Wilder actually witnessed), and the texture of visceral elements central to life itself: liquids (blood, water, adrenalin, semen, alcohol, etc.) — Liquid‘s songs plunge the listener headlong into a pool of deeply disturbed memory. It also brings together a hefty roster of vocal and lyrical collaborators along for the trip.
The most formidable of these is one of the least known: Samantha Coerbell, a New Yorker with Trinidadian roots, lays down fierce, gritty tales of poor urban life on “Last Chance for Liquid Courage” and “Supreme,” perhaps the last thing anyone would expect to hear on an album by a leather-clad Brit who used to muss his hair with truckloads of mousse. Less surprising — but no less gripping — is the vocal and lyrical contribution of Rosa Torres, a Recoil fan from Barcelona, Spain, who landed her part on Liquid by responding to an ad on Shunt, the official Recoil Web site, for vocalists to send in recordings of them speaking/singing in their native language. On “Vertigen,” Torres’s Catalan dialect and wraith-like voice blend unsettlingly well with background moans supplied by Diamanda Galas. And Galas, an inimitable vocalist with a four octave range toting an epidemic-sized cache of righteous rage, supplies the rest of the album’s finest moments, backing up the sampled Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet on “Jezebel” (think Moby’s “Natural Blues” or Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” without any of the insipid feel-good vibes) and taking center stage on the album’s first single, “Strange Hours.”
The two-part “Black Box” bookends the album, the confused voice of Reto Buhle (about whom I know little; the All Music Guide lists him only as a photographer involved with Frank Tovey and the Pyros for one album) recounting in explicit first-person detail the airplane crash Wilder witnessed. Here, Wilder’s contradictions manifest themselves again: There’s just something about timpani drums — you know, the kettle-shaped drums that resonate deeper than a bass drum — that make symphonies sound epic and pop-oriented material sound like the march of the Oompa Loompas. For all his classical training, Wilder can’t pull it off, either, when, on “Black Box 1,” he employs timpanies to underscore the drama of the thematically central plane crash. Reto Buhle’s Eurotrash accent doesn’t help much either, and the track plays like the tragicomic tale of a vacation gone wrong for a German tourist in black socks and sandals, en route to Disneyland.
Here, Wilder’s default mode, “team player,” works against him. Recoil won’t truly belong to him — nor will it fully succeed — until he takes a final bold step and emerges from the shadows as his own best songwriting partner. Still, Liquid runs fathoms deeper than anything D’Mode ever contemplated.