Condemnation: Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and Devotion at 30
Looking back on the group’s darkest album
Some albums have an easy creation, a period where everyone is in sync and the creativity flows uninterrupted out of the tap.
Then there was Songs of Faith and Devotion, released 30 years ago today, an album that nearly broke up Depeche Mode, instead only altering it for good.
It’s not a stretch to say that circumstances were fraught when the band set about recording the album in a rented villa in Madrid in 1992.
Songwriter Martin Gore was feeling the pressure of writing the follow-up to 1990’s successful Violator while also living as an alcoholic who was over a decade away from getting sober.
Singer Dave Gahan was even deeper into addiction and worse living through chemistry, on a downhill trajectory that would leave him dead of an overdose for two minutes in 1996.
Keyboardist Alan Wilder was growing increasingly dissatisfied with life within the band, for multiple reasons.
Recording took several months, first in Spain, then in follow-up sessions in Hamburg and London.
“I struggled and struggled and struggled and struggled with it… it was like pulling teeth,” producer Flood told Classic Pop last year.
“I remember being in there with Flood and I swear he was in tears because he was at such a loss at what to do to pull this thing together,” Gahan told Melody Maker.
Depeche Mode had been on a steady upward climb, able to sell out venues like the Rose Bowl (at the end of the Music for the Masses tour) without a succession of hit singles. Then came 1990’s Violator, their biggest hit to date, with three Top 40 U.S. hits – “Personal Jesus”, “Enjoy the Silence” and “Policy of Truth”.
The four members basically took time off apart after the Violator tour wrapped up in Birmingham, England in late November of that year.
Aside from the pressures inherent in writing an album to follow Violator, Gore had to deal with a lead singer who was not just intent on being the living cliche of the live-fast, die-young rock star, but was also wanting to remake the band’s sound.
Having decamped to L.A., Gahan became immersed in SoCal alt rock, wanting to inject Jane’s Addiction while being deep in his own.
“I went back with this attitude that we’ve got to make a rock record. I was all gung-ho… and the rest of the guys were not part of my plan,” Gahan said.
That’s not to say the others were looking to make Violator 2. Both Gore and Wilder were looking to avoid the same approach, wanting things to be looser.
Of course, being looser is easier if you’ve spent time together, playing off each other and building a strong base in pre-production.
Instead, Depeche Mode was starting mostly cold and they were not a band that worked best jamming things out.
The home the band was staying wasn’t a hovel, but it was small enough that it wasn’t always easy to avoid getting on someone else’s nerves. Despite this, Gahan succeeded in hiding the full extent of his heroin use from his bandmates.
The ratio of usable material to time spent in Spain was a poor one, but reconvening in Hamburg led to a more productive band.
It was there that the others became aware of how deep Gahan’s issues with heroin were, but the band, Gahan included, were trying to get the album done. And it showed in his vocals, even in the moments when his voice showed hints of a ragged edge.
“Even though he was on heroin and wasn’t here most of the time, whenever he went into the studio and did a vocal, it was amazing,” Gore said later.
Part of the reason was that, even without being fully aware of just how far down the rabbit hole Gahan had gone, Gore was coming up with material that really connected with the singer’s state of mind.
In particular, “Condemnation” hit home. To this day, it’s a Gahan favorite in the band’s catalog, one where he felt he started to come into his own as a singer.
“I immediately knew the song. It wasn’t necessarily completely accurate to the way Martin wrote the melody line or the phrasing or the timing. I just sang it, and [after] I sang it, the tape stopped rolling and it went on quiet. I’ve got my headphones on and I hear Flood’s voice go, ‘Yeah, I mean, you could do another one. But I think we got it,” Gahan told Exclaim in 2021.
Musically and lyrically, it’s Depeche Mode Goes to Church (the album title wasn’t random), with handclaps and a piano part run through what Wilder called “a wobbly pitch shifter”. Gahan’s vocals, emotive to the point where his voice almost sounds ready to break, played off Gore’s soothing harmonies in delivering lyrics of acceptance, if not hope.
While the album took ten months to record, things came together away from Spain. Flood, with Wilder, worked with sequencers to help put everything together, wanting to keep Gore’s guitars as part of the mix.
If the final album doesn’t sound like the other three had spent the previous year or so around alternative musicians in L.A., the result is still one that clearly drew in some influences not heard the same way on previous releases.
The clanging “Rush” drew comparisons to Nine Inch Nails in some quarters, when a more direct one would be Nitzer Ebb, whose 1991 album Ebbhead had been co-produced by Wilder and Flood.
There was a greater emphasis on recording the album live, with manipulation coming later. An example shows up right off the bat on “I Feel You”, built off Wilder’s drums, which were sampled, run through synths, then turned into a loop.
This was a new Depeche Mode, starting with the screeching synth opening to “I Feel You” sounding not unlike a needle scratching across vinyl or, perhaps, a skidding vehicle about to crash.
VIDEO: Depeche Mode “I Feel You”
The drum loop, combined with a bluesy guitar made for a driving update of Violator’s “Personal Jesus”. Faith and lust intermingle to the point where the song could be read as a statement of dark devotion, spiritual or earthly. It was a corker of a lead single, only to be topped by the second one.
“Walking In My Shoes” is less in-your-face and even more arresting. Brooding in a minor key, yet insinuating its way into the heart and brain as a plea for understanding. If Gore wasn’t fully aware of where Gahan was heading in the next few years, his subconscious must have been.
Throw in “Condemnation” and you have quite the 1-2-3 punch to start an album.
It’s not as if Depeche Mode falters much from that stellar opening.
“In Your Room” is full of menacing doubt, even if the menace is directed inward (“Will you lead me to your armchair/Or leave me lying here?/Your favorite innocence/Your favorite prize”). It’s a masterpiece of mood that, musically, Simple Minds would have killed for.
For a man who doesn’t subscribe to any organized religion, Gore’s unafraid to explore its themes, like sacrifice on “Judas”. It’s a track whose beautiful musical moments (choral vocals from the band and studio staff down to people working in the cafeteria, uilleann pipes from Irish multi-instrumentalist Steafan Hannigan) belie its difficult creation. The song went through multiple musical permutations, with Gore and Wilder at odds over the direction to go in.
VIDEO: Depeche Mode “Condemnation (Paris Mix)”
“‘Judas’ was the last track we mixed and I can always remember – it was like the last day of mixing the whole album – and Alan and Martin are sitting on the couch arguing about it,” Flood told Classic Pop.
“One Caress” is string-drenched romantic balladry, sung by Gore, that sounds as if it came from the soundtrack of some unheralded film.
And for all the darkness in its creation, which seeps into the material (and how could it not?), there is also light. “Get Right With Me” offers gospel uplift to backing that sounds the closest to Flood’s then-recent work on U2’s Achtung Baby. Not content to use just a trio of gospel voices as on that track, the band uses a full choir on “Higher Love”, which is where optimism, a rare quantity on SOFAD, makes its presence known.
The ensuing Devotional and Exotic tours in support of the album through the rest of 1993 well into 1994 were not stress relievers, as there was too much debauchery going on to right the ship. Heroin and Gahan were constant companions. Gore suffered a couple of seizures induced by stress. Fletcher suffered a mental breakdown and opted out of playing the rest of the shows, taking some much needed time for self-care.
Wilder, who’d been growing apart from Gore musically as well, had enough. He contacted the other three for a meeting. Well, he tried to. Attempts to reach a spiraling Gahan in Los Angeles were unsuccessful, so Wilder had to fax him to let him know what Gore and Fletcher would find out in person. He was leaving the band.
In a statement he put out later, Wilder said, in part, “Whilst I believe that the caliber of our musical output has improved, the quality of our association has deteriorated to the point where I no longer feel that the end justifies the means. I have no wish to cast aspersions on any individual; suffice to say that relations have become seriously strained, increasingly frustrating and, ultimately, in certain situations, intolerable. Given these circumstances, I have no option but to leave the group.”
He stuck to his decision and, unlike some other band departures in music history, the ensuing years did not play out with bitterness and rancor between the departee and the band.
The loss of a key contributor didn’t mean the end of Depeche Mode. Gahan survived a 1995 suicide attempt and that near-fatal overdose the following year, which pushed him to achieve sobriety. Ultra came out the following year.
The band hasn’t made a bad album in the succeeding years (2005’s Playing the Angel being quite good), with their latest — Memento Mori — coming out Friday. It’s their first without Fletcher, who died last year of an aortic dissection. The songs and the chemistry between Gore and Gahan is keeping them going even without Fletch acting as the glue even though he’s no longer around. As Gahan told the Guardian recently, “He knew it’s the best job in the world. You know, you’ve won the lottery a thousand fucking times.”
The creation of Songs of Faith and Devotion forever altered the band, who went through a lot to put it together and play it live. But the consolation came in the songs themselves.
Even though the experience of making it and touring behind it accelerated Wilder’s departure from the band, he remains a fan of the finished work. “It’s sonically flawed in some ways but like a lot of good records, it doesn’t really matter because the music has such a power and is moving in so many ways. It has something about it that for me is far superior to any other Mode album,” he said on a Q&A on his Recoil website.
Songs of Faith and Devotion is on the short list of Depeche Mode’s best in a career full of good to great albums. Between Gore’s songwriting, Flood’s and Wilder’s studio work and the band’s performances, it remains intense, involving a trip through intermingled matters of the spirit and the flesh and a perfect and painful snapshot of Depeche Mode at the time.
For all the effects and reconfigurations, it remains deeply human.
- ALBUMS: May 2023 In Review - May 31, 2023
- You See Your Gypsy: Stevie Nicks Turns 75 - May 26, 2023
- Temptation Waits: Garbage’s Version 2.0 at 25 - May 12, 2023
One thought on “Condemnation: Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and Devotion at 30”
Mercy in you? One of my favourite tracks on this album completely overlooked in this article!