Psst! Hey you! Yeah, you! Wanna hear a secret? Depeche Mode aren’t a great band. And Violator – NOT their best album, by the way – isn’t a great album!
Not to say that Depeche Mode didn’t have great songs in their three decade plus long career because they definitely did. Just not enough to fill out a two-disc compilation to match against New Order’s Substance, who they keep getting compared to because both of them started around the same time, both had a really clueless embryonic phase, both had terrible lyrics and both were more commercially and critically successful than most other synth pop bands because they weren’t confined to synths like other contemporaries Eurythmics, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Soft Cell, post-Suicide Suicide, and Tears for Fears and the list goes on that Depeche Mode would stand more of a chance against.
Fueled by the completionist fetish to hear absolutely everything by everyone, I’ve heard everything this band has to offer, and in their golden period between 1983 and 1990, they were capable of three things. 1) The occasional groove; cf.Construction Time Again’s “Love, in Itself” or Some Great Reward’s “Something To Do.” 2) The occasional catchy chorus, which is really a Godsend considering this band’s predilection towards simple chords and chord progressions and Dave Gahan’s limited vocal range (Martin Gore occasionally sings lead, and he’s got the same issue, but with a much weaker voice); cf. Some Great Reward’s “Blasphemous Rumours” or Black Celebration’s title track. And 3) The really, really, really vagueindustrial undertones that separates them from the aforementioned acts, that a lot of people have fallen for because they enjoy sulking; cf. Construction Time Again’s “Pipeline.”
Regarding Violator, it’s better than a lot of their other albums (but again, not all of them) for the following reasons:
~The counterpoint during the choruses of “World In My Eyes.”
~The riff of “Personal Jesus.”
~The first 4 minutes or so of “Enjoy the Silence.”
~The synth line throughout “Policy of Truth.”
~The birdcall throughout “Blue Dress.”
And it’s not like those songs are perfect either. The groove of “World in My Eyes” doesn’t stand a chance when pitted against the aforementioned grooves of “Love in Vain” or “Something To Do.” “Personal Jesus” was one of the two or three songs made better by Johnny Cash when Rick Rubin convinced Cash to strip down a bunch of classics throughout the American series (a list of songs, which, by the way, does not contain “Hurt”), and the reason Cash did it better is because he removes Depeche Mode’s proclivity for runny salad dressing textures and just lets the riff shine on its own as it was meant to (they make the same mistake for their cover of “John the Revelator”). And make no mistake: that riff is gold. Generic blues? Maybe, but it incorporates a brilliant use of dynamics that makes it seem like you’re stumbling. One of the few Depeche Mode songs that invoke bleakness without calling on Gore to tell you about how bleak it is, mannnn. Meanwhile, “Enjoy the Silence” might have the worst bit of meta in the history of music’s growing fascination with self-referentiality: “Enjoy the silence,” Gahan sings in what ought to be the song’s ending (and is, in the single edit) before the band tack on an ambient piece of mostly silence for you to enjoy, because their craft as an ambient artist is well-known (/sarcasm). Seriously question: does anyone enjoy that bit? Does anyone think it actually adds to the song? Does anyone get to that part and have their fingers not twitch to get to “Policy of Truth?”
And “Blue Dress” goes on for way too long, milking that one musical idea for all its worth. Depeche Mode have always had a problem with song lengths, and onViolator, that problem is exacerbated because they’ve gotten progressively less groove-based and less industrial-influenced as they streamlined towards the synth-pop band that began on Black Celebration and “culminated” (I prefer “regressed”) here. The only remnants of their dark past that occurs here, lyrics aside, is in the fake menace of backing vocals throughout “Waiting for the Night” (an otherwise decent mid-tempo groove with more texture than the rest of this album but little melody). The riff of “Personal Jesus” aside, these songs don’t have grooves that could otherwise earn these ridiculous lengths and the male choir throughout and lasers in the choruses of “Enjoy the Silence” aside, these songs aren’t textured in a way that could otherwise earn these ridiculous lengths. And what else is there to talk about? “Sweetest Perfection?” No.
And make no mistake, they suck as lyricists. Even New Order wrote about rape and murder, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark wrote about eugenics. Depeche Mode? Fucking nothing, wrapped up in AABB rhyme schemes. And Gore’s lyrics aren’t dark, they’re just the same vague bullshit that you can find from any high schooler’s diary; the world sucks because puberty and I can’t wait to run home to masturbate to my BDSM-porn collection before my parents come home and don’t love me; cf. any of the lyrics.
I’d quote Rolling Stone’s original 2-star review of this album if it made any sense at all or talked to its music in the slightest bit, so I guess Pitchfork’s Nitsuh Abebe will have to do: “Solid, but not particularly interesting.”
Happy 25th birthday!