So while on my 90s kick, I of course had to listen to Violator, quite possibly Depeche Mode’s best album ever. It’s an amazingly strong album from start to finish. I was a relatively new convert to DM, having bought Some Great Reward and Catching Up (their US-based singles collection) in late 1986, with Black Celebration showing up in my collection soon after.
I usually see SGW as DM Phase II, where their songs were less about the synth bloops and more about the moods they could create with them. This phase would end two albums and a greatest hits later with Music for the Masses, which one could conceivably see as their Joshua Tree — the album that broke them to a much wider audience. Come 1989, after their highly regarded live show (documented on the live album and documentary, 101), they were back in the studio and creating something new.
DM Phase III started with a single that sounded nothing like they’d released before. Continuing their habit of releasing a new single six months or so before the new album would drop, August 1989’s “Personal Jesus” was definitely a change of pace. A country blues foot-stomper that featured a fantastic twanging guitar riff from songwriter Martin Gore, this new track sounded stronger and more current than their previous works. They’d long grown out of their 80s industrial post-punk image and found their sex appeal.
They followed it up with in early February 1990 with what would become their most popular hit, “Enjoy the Silence”. Driving, danceable and a hell of a great song to crank up on your car stereo, it’s one of Martin Gore’s best songs in his entire oeuvre. It’s not a love song about trying to get the girl, or trying to impress the girl; it’s a song about already being with the girl; he’s blissfully happy and knows he doesn’t need anything else in this world to add to that happiness. [In fact, the rest of the world pales in comparison, come to think of it.]
The third single, “Policy of Truth”, is the mirror opposite of its predecessor, even though they’re side by side on the album. This is a relationship nearing its end, where trust is all but gone. But in true Martin Gore form, the narrator would rather continue hearing sweet lies than the bitter truth, given the status of their relationship. The song also contains one hell of a great last verse, in which nearly all the instruments have stuttered to a halt, underscoring the message: it’s far too late to fix this connection.
Fourth single, album opener “World in My Eyes”, is a quirky choice for the last single release, considering that in the context of the album as a whole it sets the scene: you’re about to hear a whole new Depeche Mode. Still, it also works as a final single to remind us that we’re not going to be hearing the bloopiness of A Broken Frame or even the gloominess of Black Celebration. This is the new Depeche Mode, like it or not.
Singles aside, the album tracks are equally as fantastic. Album closer “Clean” harkens back to their dark-and-dirty dirges like “Little 15” and “Pipeline”, although this time the message isn’t grim — it’s a release, an awakening.
“Sweetest Perfection” employs both sampled and live drums, but it also includes stellar guitar work from Martin Gore. The song builds from a creep to a stall to a full-on blast of emotion in just under five minutes.
Violator is still considered one of Depeche Mode’s greatest albums, and it’s a well deserved accolade. They chose to go in a new direction here, one that would update their sound considerably, and Martin Gore is at his top form as a songwriter. It still stands up well to this day, and their ‘new’ sound doesn’t sound dated at all. You’ll still hear “Enjoy the Silence” right alongside today’s songs on alternative radio, and it hasn’t aged a bit.
Up next: Depeche Mode in the 90s: Songs of Faith and Devotion