Making it big in religious mode

IF NOTHING else, Depeche Mode has defied the odds. While most of the hyper-serious techno-pop groups of the early '80s have faded, Depeche Mode has taken the slow and steady approach - gaining new fans with every release.

It is a matter of giving the audience what it wants. Since 1981, the group has offered up industrial dance pop and searching, pseudo-intellectual lyrics - a perfect mix for generation after generation of university students.

And, like other veteran British groups such as The Cure and XTC, Depeche owes much of its popularity to the embrace of college radio stations in the United States.

To understand this appeal, look at the lyrics of the group's 1984 hit, Blasphemous Rumours : ''I don't want to start any blasphemous rumours/ But I think that God has a sick sense of humour/ And when I die, I expect to find him laughing. '' As an idea, this is either terribly clever, totally moronic or a bit of both - and as such, a sure-fire way to excite an earnest undergraduate's mind.

Happily, though, Depeche Mode's first album in three years, Songs of Faith and Devotion, is a more subtle effort - perhaps a coming of age.

The first single, I Feel You, for instance, is an optimistic love song: ''I feel you/ Your heart it sings/ I feel you/ The joy it brings/ Where heaven waits. '' And another song, Get Right With Me, lightens Dave Gahan's typically sombre voice with gospel back-up vocals.

But Songs of Faith and Devotion still carries plenty of angst-ridden gloom. Despite the welcome addition of uilleann pipes on Judas, this song is hopelessly mired in its own significance: ''Idle talk and hollow promises/ Cheating Judases/ Doubting Thomases/ Don't just stand there and shout it/ Do something about it. '' And Walking in My Shoes is embarrassingly introspective: ''I would tell you about the things they put me through/ The pain that I've been subjected to/ But the Lord himself would blush. '' Of course, there are those who do not listen to lyrics. And Songs of Faith and Devotion does offer some accomplished music.

In Your Room, the album's most compelling tune, features a vaguely Middle-Eastern melody, lush symphonic accompaniment and a powerful electronic groove.

And in a complete stylistic change for the group, the vocal of One Caress is supported exclusively by a 28-piece orchestra. Several songs also employ corrosive-sounding guitar - reminiscent of The Edge on U2's Achtung Baby.

Ultimately, the problem with Songs of Faith and Devotion is not what it does, but what it fails to do.

If, as the album's title and lyrics suggest, Songs of Faith and Devotion is meant as a spiritual offering, it is rarely conveyed. Rather, it sounds as if it conceived by atheists - no celebration, no transcendence.

Then again, that may be the point.