ALBUMS: March 2023 In Review

Digging into fantastic new LPs by The Zombies, Depeche Mode and Lana Del Rey

The Zombies Different Game, BMG 2023

This month? Let’s get right into it. 

For a band that had broken up a year before their most beloved album took off, the Zombies have managed a long second act that would have been unexpected at the time.

Different Game is the band’s fourth album since they reunited in the early 2000s, when singer Colin Blunstone and keyboardist/primary songwriter Rod Argent were enjoying playing shows together and fans kept requesting more Zombies songs.

To Blunstone and Argent’s credit, they aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel at this stage of their careers, staying in their wheelhouses — pop with baroque, jazzy and soulful touches.

Artist: The Zombies

Album: Different Game 

Label: Cooking Vinyl

★★★★ (4/5 stars) 

Those are on display from the get-go with the opening title track with its organ and strings echoing Procol Harum.

The swinging “Dropped, Reeling & Stupid” likewise could have it right in with the work in their initial run without many changes.

Blunstone remains one of the Zombies’ main selling points. Having seen one of the Odessey and Oracle shows around that album’s anniversary, he handled the bulk of the high notes with aplomb that night. Even now, a few years later, his voice may show a little weathering around the edges at 78, but not much. He’s still in fine form (and would be at half his age), conveying a congenial warmth. 


VIDEO: The Zombies “Dropped Reeling & Stupid”

Likewise, Argent’s keyboard skills remain undimmed and his production makes sure that the warmth isn’t just conveyed vocally.

The two play well off each other with a chemistry that’s still there after 60 years, even with that time off in-between. Take the lovely piano ballad “You Could Be My Love”, which hearkens back to classic adult contemporary, followed immediately by the bouncier “Merry-Go-Round” moving things from the quiet wine bar to the classy nightclub.

Even better on the ballad front is the precise chamber pop of “I Want to Fly”.

And the closer “The Sun Will Rise Again” encapsulates much of the open, hopeful spirit which pervades Different Game.

The Zombies throw in little tweaks as well, like the doo-wop harmonies on “Rediscover” to the bluesy feel of “Got to Move On”, which is more spritely than the jamming on the post-Zombies Argent albums could be.

The album as a whole doesn’t reach the peaks of their best work, as in the old parlance, there isn’t the standout single here. But there’s also certainly nothing to tarnish the Zombies legacy, either.

Different Game, the best of their reunion albums, is the sound of a pair of craftsmen remaining in possession of their skills and pop savvy, still clearly enjoying playing together.

At many years longer than their initial run, the Zombies’ ongoing reunion is a gift that keeps on giving.




Depeche Mode Memento Mori, Columbia Records 2023

For a brief period, there were doubts that there would be another Depeche Mode album. 

The pandemic hit during a break for the band. Singer Dave Gahan, who’d dealt with trying to tour with his other band, The Soulsavers, began to wonder if it was all worth it.

That changed when Martin Gore sent him the newest songs he was working on. Any thoughts of retiring were dropped. Depeche Mode was set to go back into the studio.

That’s when Andy Fletcher, the member who was the steadiest during their most turbulent years, shockingly died of an aortic dissection.

Artist: Depeche Mode 

Album: Memento Mori 

Label: Columbia Records 

★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars) 

Any thoughts of dissolving the band afterwards disappeared quickly, as Gahan told The Guardian. “But Martin and I had a conversation. I was just calling up to see how he was doing and he was like, ‘We’re moving on, right?’ I said, yeah. I didn’t miss a beat.”

Gore and Gahan kept their schedule, going into the studio six weeks later, creating to keep their minds off Fletcher’s death as much as possible.

That death couldn’t help but inform the album, but it was a direction Gore was heading in anyway. Although he hadn’t lost anyone close to him to COVID-19, death and loss were all around during the pandemic. That influenced the songs he wrote. The material prompted his suggestion for the album title, which translates to “Remember you must die”, with the term referring to symbolism about the inevitability of death.

The video for “Ghosts Again” dove headfirst into that symbolism, with its nods to The Seventh Seal, although it ends with a handshake and not a danse macabre.

The song sticks in the brain and heart the way that Depeche Mode’s best ones have. The tearjerker manages to sound contemporary while feeling like a beloved hit single from 40 years ago.

The song is one of four that Gore wrote with Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs, in addition to one with Gahan.


VIDEO: Depeche Mode “Ghosts Again”

Indeed, the fact that the band is now a duo isn’t the only sign this isn’t the Depeche Mode of old,when Gore was the sole writer. Gahan co-wrote two others with members of their touring band, as well as producer James Ford and engineer Marta Salogni.

Even with more outside hands, this is still clearly a Depeche Mode album.

“My Cosmos Is Mine” is full of industrial mood, with synth washes over electronic cracks and hisses making it sound like Gahan as if crooning about accepting the inevitable (“No fear…no rain/No final breaths, no senseless deaths”) in an abandoned factory that’s somehow still running.

The Reznorian vibe (the influencer nodding to the influenced) is even more pronounced on the pulsing “Never Let Me Go”, which throws guitar clamor into the mix.

The album doesn’t lean into the noise as a whole. This isn’t as in-your-face as 1993’s classic Songs of Faith and Devotion often was. It’s a more subdued affair, if hardly minimalist. Gahan told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe that he and Gore looked to take things out, rather than throw in the whole kitchen sink.

Take the musical influences (the only kind the band operates under now as the chemical ones are in the past).

The absorbingly bleak “My Favourite Stranger” and sarcastic “People Are Good” move as efficiently as they were a marvel of German engineering. 

Gahan’s croon is in fine fettle on the awash-in-atmosphere “Before We Drown”, buoyed by Gore’s harmonies that belie the lyrical fatalism.

Gore and Gahan have both maintained sobriety for a number of years. “Caroline’s Monkey”, an exploration of addiction (“Fading’s better than failing/Falling’s better than feeling/Folding’s better than losing/Fixing’s better than healing/Sometimes”), is another Gore-Butler collaboration. It sounds like it traveled over 35 years forward to 2023 in a time machine.

One can certainly read their grief over losing the band member who Gahan called “Depeche Mode’s biggest fan” at times throughout the lyrics, although it’s also a sad coincidence with the album mostly being written before his death. Gore was days away from being able to send Fletcher the demos.

But while that grief is palpable, so is a sense of acknowledgment that it’s part of the inevitable for all of us, that there is still love and meaning to be found while we’re here, ending with the acceptance of “Speak to Me”.

It’s not quite accurate to refer to Memento Mori as a return to form. The band’s previous album, 2017’s strong Spirit saw the band get political in response to the most odious tendencies of the right-wing. In particular, neo-Nazi Richard Spencer flailed his way through a weak attempt to co-opt the band’s music as some sort of soundtrack for his movement.

It’s also no surprise Depeche Mode approached Memento Mori as it did. Indomitability has been part of its DNA for over 40 years, from the departure of first songwriter Vince Clarke to Fletcher’s death and all of the strife in-between, this is a band that has always found a way forward. 

It’s as if they’ve taken the implied rest of Memento Mori’s translation. Yes, it’s “remember that you will die”, but also “you’re still here, make the most of it.”

Memento Mori, their best album since, and a moving tribute to that indomitability.




Lana Del Rey Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, Interscope Records 2023

When it comes to music, it never hurts to keep an open mind.

I remember not being able to look away from Lana Del Rey’s 2012 trainwreck appearance on SNL. Del Rey was unbothered and kept going.

By 2019, I was indifferent when she released Norman Fucking Rockwell, until I listened to it and realized it was one of that year’s best albums. Hell, she’d even managed to pull off something that should have been impossible, a Sublime cover that didn’t make me reach for the skip button.

She continued her streak with 2021’s Blue Banisters and Chemtrails Over the Country Club. The best tracks off those albums would have made for a heck of a follow-up.

Artist: Lana Del Rey

Album: Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd

Label: Interscope/Polydor 

★★★★ (4/5 stars) 

Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd is a sprawling affair, clocking in at 77 minutes with 14 songs and two interludes.

Del Rey has a way with a line. Take Rockwell’s opening lyrics as an example. (“Godamn, man child/You fucked me so good that I almost said, ‘I love you”/You’re fun and you’re wild/But you don’t know the half of the shit that you put me through”).

She turns that sharp eye towards her critics on “Grandfather Please Stand on the Shoulders of My Father While He’s Deep-Sea Fishing”, asserting the degree of control she’s had throughout her career: “I know they think that it took thousands of people/ To put me together again like an experiment/ Some big men behind the scenes/ Sewing Frankenstein black dreams into my songs/ But they’re wrong”.

The title track dives deep into metaphor, with a tunnel that actually exists. The Jergins Tunnel connected Long Beach’s downtown to the beach, full of art deco flourishes and shops, allowing a connection from downtown to the beach. As beach  attractions changed and faded, progress (or “progress”) meant Ocean Boulevard would be widened. The tunnel was sealed in 1967 and has decayed ever since.

In Del Rey’s hands, she is the tunnel, wondering when her time of unplanned fading away might happen. Tastes change and even enduring artists find it harder to stay in the brighter spotlights.

And there’s relationship psychodrama thrown in, too (Open me up, tell me you like it/Fuck me to death, love me until I love myself/There’s a tunnel under Ocean Boulevard/Don’t forget me”).

“A&W”, which stands for “American Whore”, is trademark Del Rey in its ambition and audaciousness. It’s Tori Amos by way of Bruce Springsteen, before moving into spare beats that show the influence she’s had on the likes of Billie Eilish. All the way, it takes the journey from childhood innocence to an adulthood where the lost innocence is stark in its emptiness.

At this point, Del Rey is on a prolific recording pace in addition to publishing her poetry. What hasn’t happened yet is a movie or television series built around some of her music. Given her penchant for veering into the existential, matching the filthy and the spiritual and willingness to not spare the subjects of her songs, it seems like one of those ideas one is surprised hasn’t happened yet.

It doesn’t take much to close one’s eyes and picture scenes set to the absorbing piano ballads “Candy Necklace” and “Paris, Texas” (the sprightlier of the two) or the cinematic folk sweep of “Let the Light In”.

The latter features Father John Misty, whose Nilsson-evoking album Chloë and the Next 20th Century was one of last year’s best and indication that these two’s musical sensibilities were a natural fit.


VIDEO: Lana Del Rey feat. Jon Batiste “Candy Necklace”

He’s one of many guest stars on an album that Del Rey co-produced with five others, most notably Jack Antonoff, who is seemingly legally required to produce everyone with a recording contract.

If there’s a quibble with Ocean Blvd, it’s that it’s a tad too sprawling. A little trimming would have made for a more potent album.

But, then again, it’s Lana Del Rey, where the messiness and even silliness (looking at you, “Peppers”) are part of the precision.

There are some who still haven’t been won over by her which, well, I’d still recommend Norman Fucking Rockwell first.

But Ocean Blvd is a self-assured successor, another in a run that shows why she’s respected by a lot of her contemporaries, with enough talent to, unlike others might have, blow past a few minutes of gawkworthy live television without looking back.


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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love—music. She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

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