Editorial
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How Depeche Mode’s Violator Turned a Joke Into a Prophecy

on March 28, 2020, 12:05pm

When Depeche Mode decided to title their sixth album Music for the Masses, it was meant to be a joke. “It was anything but music for the masses,” Martin Gore said of the album. While the synth-pop quartet of singer David Gahan, chief songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Gore, and keyboard players Alan Wilder and Andrew Fletcher had already achieved a considerable measure of success, the dark and moody Depeche Mode boys weren’t exactly international pop superstars in 1987.

Fast-forward three years later: Depeche Mode had become popular enough to incite a riot. To promote their seventh album, Violator, the band did an in-store autograph signing in Los Angeles. The event drew over 10,000 fans: far more bodies than anyone was expecting to show up. Pushing up against the shop windows in their eagerness to get close to the group, the horde of fans was dispersed by 130 policemen in riot gear.

What a difference three years makes: it can turn an album title from a joke into a prophecy.

Released on March 19, 1990, Violator was a commercial and artistic breakthrough for the band. It found them playing fast and loose in the studio in a way they had never done before. “We decided that our first record of the ‘90s ought to be different,” Gore said about the recording process. On past DM records, Gore would bring almost-complete songs to the studio — fleshing out the tracks on his own before bringing in the rest of the band to add some final finishing touches. Encouraged by producer Flood, the band worked without that safety net for Violator: Gore brought in unfinished demos, giving the rest of his bandmates more creative freedom to help shape the songs in the studio.

You can hear that unfinished quality in the album’s production. If the rest of their early discography was Born to Run, Violator was their Nebraska: bare and cold. Instead of baking the songs into synth productions as layered as a Neapolitan cake, Wilder and Flood crafted soundscapes with empty pockets and sparse arrangements. There’s room for your ears to wander in Violator and pick up on the eccentric noises and blasphemous rumors they’re whispering in those dark corners of sound.

While Gore joked about Music for the Masses’ lack of commercial potential, that record set up one of the biggest factors for Violator’s success: the introduction of guitars into the band’s sound. Part of what gives Violator its distinct character is the way the band deploys guitars to give their music an earthier, more tactile feel. Consider Gore’s iconic riffing on “Personal Jesus”, a twangy guitar lick that springs and hops across the Elvis-inspired track like a jackalope. Like the slide-guitar score for Paris, Texas and U2’s love-affair with blues music on Rattle and Hum, it sounds like a European’s fantasy of what roots music is supposed to be like. The Anton Corbijn-directed video for “Personal Jesus” makes their interest in Americana even more obvious by casting the Depeche boys as a posse of cowboys on the make for saloon senoritas.

Watching the Corbijn videos from this era, you can see one of the biggest reasons for the band’s big-time glow-up: David Gahan fully embracing his status as a sex symbol. Reviewing Violator for Rolling Stone, Chuck Eddy said that Gahan sounded “slimy and self-involved” on the album. This is a feature in Depeche Mode’s operating system, not a bug. Gahan’s goth fuckboy energy on Violator makes the songs work. It’s why “Personal Jesus” is so effective: Gahan nails the oily, persuasive charm of a televangelist whose (to paraphrase The Afghan Whigs) “got a dick for a brain and is going to sell his ass to you.”

Whereas many of his New Romantic and Gothic contemporaries had melodramatic or arch singing styles, Gahan’s singing style is almost conversational. Gahan’s come-ons are casual, crooned with easy self-assurance; Corbijn finds the perfect visual to embody this aspect of Gahan in the video for “Enjoy the Silence”, where he turns Dave into a king who kicks it in a beach lounger chair. Paired with Gore’s conflicted lyrics about sex, destructive relationships, God, and sadomasochism, Gahan’s sensually indifferent voice makes it all sound like it’s part of his act. And long before The Weeknd and Drake made bank selling themselves as comfortably numb nihilist love machines, there was Gore on “Sweetest Perfection” singing about sweet injections and “the sweetest infection of body and mind.”

Love on Violator is a conspiracy. It’s shared in whispers and secrets: “don’t say a word,” “words are violence,” “hide what you have to hide.” On the band’s biggest hit at the time, “Enjoy the Silence”, love is a fragile bubble just waiting to be burst. Originally a minimalist song with just vocals and a harmonium, Flood convinced Gore to beef up the track with guitar and an up-tempo beat. The alterations turned Gore’s demo into one of the band’s most anthemic songs: a haunting ode to keeping your mouth shut and enjoying the moment while it lasts.

While Gore’s lyrics are obsessed with making secret compacts and keeping things on the down-low, the music itself is itching to be heard. While Violator is more stripped-down than their earlier records, it’s also more sonically adventurous. All that empty space in Gore’s demos left the band plenty of room to doodle in the margins. Violator is a record full of fascinating sonic quirks and embellishments: the electronic shrieks and submerged tremolo (like someone playing the Twin Peaks theme at the bottom of a well) in “Blue Dress”; the insistent synth refrain on “Halo” that sounds like a pig snuffling; the way the word “harm” pierces the delicate atmosphere of “Waiting for the Night”, rising in volume and ascending in the mix until it gets transformed into a burst of guitar noise; or how the drum hit in “World in My Eyes” sounds like someone spitting.

The album ends with “Clean”, a dark night of the soul where Gore/Gahan make peace with their sins. But it’s the song before it, “Blue Dress”, that feels like the album’s true finale. It’s a song that shrinks down the universe, condensing everything that is good and beguiling and tragic about life into a single act: watching your lover put on her dress. Nine years after Violator, Stephin Merrit would sing about a similar feeling on 69 Love Songs: “A pretty girl in her underwear/ If there’s anything better in this world, who cares?” Gore, watching that blue dress go on, muses aloud to his subject that that reverse striptease “makes the world turn.” That sacred stillness between lovers, where the world seems to freeze in place and everything is silent and ecstatic, isn’t built to last. Eventually someone has to roll out of bed, put on their clothes, and go back to work. We can’t wear fig leaves in the Garden forever.

Maybe that’s the reverse halo Gahan is really singing about earlier on the record: the circle of a discarded dress, waiting to rise back up after the silence they’ve enjoyed has come to an end.

Editor’s Note: Earlier, we noted that “Sweetest Perfection” and “Blue Dress” were performed by Gahan and not Gore. This article has since been amended.