Depeche Mode in the 90s – Songs of Faith and Devotion


The next release from Depeche Mode in the 90s was a much darker affair…

But first, I’d like to make a little side trip to late 1991 and Wim Wenders’ fantastic epic, Until the End of the World.  One of my top ten favorite films, it’s a road movie about a woman whose presence changes the fate of nearly everyone around her, while she herself is trying to figure out her own.  It takes place at on New Years’ Eve, as 1999 changes over to 2000 — not just the end of the year, but the century and the millennium as well.   For the soundtrack, Wenders reached out to numerous bands and musicians and asked them to write a song in the style they believe they’d have eight years from then.

DM’s donation was a religiously-tinged blues ballad called “Death’s Door” that hints at the prodigal son returning (much like William Hurt’s character in the film).  It’s a great soundtrack worth picking up, and if you can find a copy of the film (it’s available for streaming on Amazon), it’s well worth checking out.

After that, the band remained quiet for some time until February 1993, when the new single “I Feel You” was released.  Upon first listen, it sounded like the band had retained their fuller, stronger sounds and melodies, but had continued with their darker themes and moods.  Like many previous pre-album singles (like “Strangelove” and “Personal Jesus”, it sounded vastly different than anyone had expected, right down to the opening screech of feedback.

Also gone was Dave Gahan’s perky goofball image; he was now grungy and longhaired with a dangerous sex swagger.  [It was revealed sometime later that this partly due to his worsening drug addiction.]  In fact, within the first minute of the video, we no longer see the band on banks of keyboards; only Andy Fletcher was behind the keys.  Alan Wilder was now drumming, and Martin Gore was playing a Cash-like twang that would become the motif of the entire track.


Songs of Faith and Devotion arrived not six months later but almost exactly one month after that first single.  There’s a rough tension throughout the album, not unlike listening to The Beatles’ white album (a description given to it by Alan Wilder himself)…the music is full of powerful anger, and Gahan’s singing has taken on an irritated growl (inspired by the LA alternative bands he’d been hanging with by that time).  There are more organic samples here — live drums and guitars laid down and sequenced — and hardly a clanging pipe or popping firework anywhere at all.  And tensions within the band had grown to such a degree that Wilder would quit the band at the end of the supporting tour.

It’s a very apt title, as religious themes pop up all over the place.  It’s not an album about praise, though…it’s about the limits of faith and devotion, both in life and in spirituality.  The critical response to the album was highly positive, however, and though its singles are rarely chosen for airplay nowadays, it’s an incredibly solid and deeply emotional album worth checking out.

Second single “Walking in My Shoes” is the track that would get the most airplay, as it’s the most melodic and most typical of the band’s sound.  That’s not to say it was written to sell units, however, far from it.  It’s a bleak song using the ‘walk a mile in my shoes’ metaphor as only Gore and DM can do it: don’t you dare judge me until you feel what I’ve gone through.

Third single “Condemnation,” however, was a completely leftfield hit on both sides of the Atlantic.  While “Death’s Door” hinted at a hymnal, this one is purely gospel choir, and it’s a deeply moving and lovely track.

Fourth and final single “In Your Room” featured the band venturing even further from their digital sound as well as their previous image: the video features numerous visual cues from their previous videos made with Anton Corbijn, twisted just that little bit to hint at a wish to be freed of them.  Even the mix used here (the Zephyr Mix) is almost all analogue, showing DM as an almost purely rock band now instead of a synth band.

Even the album tracks like the gospel-by-way-of-Led-Zeppelin “Get Right with Me” and the turbulent irritation of “Rush” feature a band going all out in spirit and emotion.  Taken as a whole, the album definitely mirrors the real-life tensions the band had been dealing with during the writing and recording, as well as the expectations laid upon them to recreate something as phenomenal as Violator.  It would nearly break them.  Wilder would depart at the end of the album’s tour, and once the tour was over that December, they would go their separate ways.  Dave Gahan would attempt suicide in late 1995 and nearly die from a drug overdose in spring 1996.  Gahan survived and persevered, recovering from his heroin addiction and turning his life around.

By early 1997, they were back with a new, even stronger and more cohesive album, Ultra.




Depeche Mode in the 90s – Violator


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