I used to be very much into pop music during the 1980’s. There was something about that period – and that period’s popular music – that sparked a fire in me. Lots of it was very happy-go-lucky and easily digestible. There were perennial, simple themes like love and loss of love and growing up that all seemed to mesh well with the vibrant palette of the era. We will never have those giant shoulder-pads again. Or those neon colours splashed all over everything.
And that’s kind of a loss for the human race. I say “kind of” because sometimes, growing up and becoming darker and more emotional and more in tune with the actual you that isn’t just the surface is pretty important.
One of the bands that were making this exact transformation at about the same time I was undergoing this personal journey was Depeche Mode.
To understand Violator means to listen to all the albums that preceded it, because each album, in turn, gave something to Violator itself. From the simple [but layered] melodies of Speak And Spell [even if the lyrical content of that album was…lacking, at best] all the way through to their previous opus, Music For The Masses [with it’s wonderful, smooth synthetic sounds] – one could hear the progression toward this seminal moment. And when it arrived…
…well, it arrived in a very peculiar way, delivered as it was by advertisements that talked about “your own personal Jesus” with a number that you could dial so you could hear the song. [amusingly, the telephone concept found its way into the lyrics, so rather an apt way of getting the message across.]
But the birth of the single Personal Jesus was different in lots of ways for Depeche Mode who had only really flirted with guitars and guitar sounds up until that point. There was a distinctive guitar riff on both Route 66 and Behind the Wheel, of course, but this was the first time a guitar was the true heart of one of their songs.
So, it was clear that “something different this way comes” right from the outset.
The album cover, itself, was another gracious, simple design. Black, white and red all mingled together to form quite a minimalist, simplistic sleeve that said everything you needed to understand about this album: it was beautiful, but it had thorns and it could bite.
Of course, once you got over the shock of Personal Jesus and you listened to the whole thing, you could clearly hear the thinking going on over at the Depeche Mode camp:
Take all the best, smoothest parts of Music for the Masses, sprinkle with some controversial lyrics from Black Celebration, mingle with a little bit of industrial flair, courtesy of Some Great Reward [and Construction time again], now add in the layered approach to melody found on both A Broken Frame and Speak And spell and out comes Violator.
For this band at this point in their career, it was the only logical step.
[The next logical step, of course, is shattering this mould completely, but that’s a different review for a different day when we delve into Songs Of Faith And Devotion.]
Unfortunately, not all of this ends well: Martin Gore’s lyrical fascination with sin, lust, and general darkness of the soul continue to take root here. The last vestiges of light found on Music for the Masses are all but gone. There’s no lyrical lightness such as was found on Sacred. The simple declarations of love shown on It Doesn’t Matter Two are compounded with sex and smuttiness that earlier Martin Gore was hinting at and flirting with, but that never really became the basis for most of a record. [I mean, really, you can’t have a song called A Question of Lust and not have it be about anything else, right?]
Depeche Mode had gone all gothic here, but gothic in a way only they could do: synthesizers building upon one another to create a lush soundscape that demanded your attention. Preferably with headphones – if you wanted the best experience of the album.
That darkness found me and touched me in a way that pop could never have done. I loved the Pet Shop Boys and while they’d made some denser and darker sounding songs before, the content of those songs never touched on God or sin in the way that Depeche Mode were doing, and given that I was at a point where those concepts mattered a lot to me, it seemed to help to have a foil to ask heavier, denser questions than I was maybe ready for: Is this God guy on the up and up? Why does He allow all these atrocities if He’s so benevolent? And for that, Depeche Mode was a blast of fresh air. They suggested that while He might be there, it might be wise to have a touch of doubt about the whole thing. After all, doubt and scepticism are healthy.
Is this album worth your time? I think that, years later, the sound of Violator still stands out. It’s an album filled to the brim with amazing attention to detail that sounds as crisp and smooth [and wonderfully engineered] as it did the first time I sat down to listen to it. The lyrical content, on the other hand doesn’t hold up very well. Twenty five years along, I appreciate the raw energy and the sentiment behind Personal Jesus, but the controversy of it makes me shrug. Enjoy the Silence, while by turns a song about “enjoying what we have, here and now” can easily be misconstrued as “it’s not a real good idea if we talk. That just complicates things.” Meanwhile, “World In My Eyes” is basically a song all about sex. Finally, the basic premise of “Policy of Truth” is solid, if surprising, given Martin Gore’s continued fixation on sin and the like.
I am singling those four songs out, primarily because they’re the release singles and you’ve possibly already heard them. If you like them, then I can completely endorse this record. It contains one of my favourite Depeche Mode songs in the form of “Waiting for the Night” which is an amazing song that should be tracked down and heard from end to end.
If you don’t like those four songs, then this is going to be a difficult sell. Maybe you’re not on board with the electronica on display here. If so, skip to the next album [Songs of Faith and Devotion], which does rock in a very distinct way.
Either way, the music – if nothing else is very intriguing and worth a listen.