Looking back at when the world’s biggest synth band plugged in and played the blues
Barring that time is a human construct used to impose order on largely chaotic and disordered universe, the concept of time is a helpful demarcation to lend some ceremony to our lives’ tendencies towards frequent, often disorienting change.
Change is one of the chief concerns of how humans perceive themselves and their world, in art and commerce and even in passion and love. Crucial historical events often crescendo around turns of decades or centuries. And in the late eighties and early nineties, the species was collectively reeling through a hall-of-mirrors fever dream of global upheaval – the Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, Chernobyl, the dark reality of Reaganomics, tragic stampedes and earthquakes in the besieged Middle East. Amidst all this change, smaller fissures were appearing. In the music landscape, the UK rave/acid house culture was picking up steam, a populist and idealistic rebuke to the cruel regime of PM Margaret Thatcher.
Beloved British dance-pop heroes Depeche Mode stood at their own career crossroads as this uncertain new decade beckoned. Bored with their usual extensive pre-planning of the specifics preceding a new album, they went into the studio willfully blind, explaining to the press that they wanted the first Depeche Mode full-length of the 90s to be ‘different’. Less demos, less formula, less pre-production. Each member would function within their roles with little overlap, a decision made out of fear of helpless inefficency and creative stagnation. Songs would be allowed to blossom in unexpected ways, to become something other than what they were expected to be. Under the invaluable production guidance of a young engineer by the name of Flood, this approach would lead to an incredibly successful chapter in the group’s history, though no one could have foreseen that at the time. When all was said and done, for many, Violator was the ultimate Depeche Mode statement.
Lyrically, Violator would find songwriter Martin Gore embodying a willfully-positive response to the overly-conservative, ostensibly ‘moral’ outlook prevailing in the UK and the US at the time. “World In My Eyes” is pure hedonism, an advocacy for pleasure in the face of stifling repression, while “Clean” embraces the simplicity of older musical paradigms while still embracing current, and even the hauntingly futuristic.
Perhaps the byproduct of its spontaneous production, Violator embodies space and rejects claustrophobia and excessive layering, instead presenting a shimmering void of sprawling sound, from the faux-choral synth stabs and glistening chorus guitar leads of ‘Enjoy The Silence’ to the groaning dancefloor-throb of ‘Policy Of Truth’.
Even the name of the album was chosen for its heavy-metal like undercurrent of glacial menace. Themes of guilt, and its dark twin salvation, cocoon the album in a yearning, night-world haze of spirituality and regretful sin. Never before had David Gahan’s crooning baritone sounded so free to emote, to long and ache among the shadows.
Critics were divided, with some misinterpreting the album’s eerie twilight alienation as clinical or cold. The listening public, however, embraced Depeche Mode as never before. The bluesy churn of “Personal Jesus” and the downcast swoon of “Enjoy The Silence” were inescapable on radio and MTV as eighties ebbed into nineties, and Depeche Mode became unexpected superstars, something they’d never considered as a potential outcome at the album’s intimidating, mysterious outset. With Violator, Depeche Mode found a new way to be Depeche Mode, and in the process revealed a path forward, one that led to their next full-length topping global charts upon release. Inter-band tensions during that album, Songs Of Love And Devotion, would also lead to near-disintegration.
Depeche Mode’s future nevertheless remained bright, though never again did they take such daring risks as those found on Violator pay off for them. Thirty years later, these songs remain at the edges of cultural conversation, transcending time and place to imbue new contemporary meaning in another dizzying and often-terrifying time of change. It’s easy to call an album timeless, but maybe easier still to realize that we’ve had the soundtrack to all of this all along. The soundtrack was always Violator.