And Now, a Word From 20-Year-Old Me: A Review of Depeche Mode’s “Violator”

I was talking yesterday on Twitter about my writing when I was much much younger (i.e., in the years between 18 and 21) and how the world is much better not seeing that writing, which of course some folks took as a challenge. So fine, as a representative sample of my writing at that age, here’s my review of Depeche Mode’s Violator, which I reviewed when it came out, when I was 20. I reviewed it in the Chicago Maroon, the University of Chicago student newspaper (of which I was the editor-in-chief at the time). Compare and contrast to the cranky 49-year-old you know today!

***

Depeche Mode
Violator
Sire Records
3 Stars (out of 4)
Reviewed: March, 1990

A couple of years ago, after Depeche Mode’s appearance at the Rose Bowl, a Los Angeles Times reviewer ventured the opinion that Depeche Mode was this generation’s Pink Floyd. This comparison appears ludicrous on the surface and doesn’t get any better further down, and may be an indication that this reviewer doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or that he has an annoyingly precious view of our generation.

Both bands do drink deeply from that peculiarly English well of loneliness, pain and alienation, but the similarities end there. Where Floyd gloomily ruminates about insanity and the humiliating end of all things British, Depeche gloomily wraps itself up in latex and metal nubs and makes like the height of human relationships is mutual tattooing with dirty needles. This from a band who got its start with playful little ditties like “Just Can’t Get Enough” and “See You.”

You do have to wonder if Depeche Mode has gotten a really good look at their main audience of screaming fourteen-year-olds recently, whose depth of lyrical awareness is limited to holding up lighters during “People are People.” Depeche can’t be said to be addressing the concerns of their public when they jot down their notes about perversity, subjugation and wearable rubber. This is just as well, as the fourteen-year-old who lives “Master and Servant” and “Strangelove” is the one to stay very far away from. But even if their audience isn’t really listening to them, it certainly hasn’t hurt their sales base any. If the records sell, there’s no reason for them not to delve deeper into the topics that interest the creative element of the band.

The name of the band’s latest effort, Violator, will telegraph to the astute consumer just what those interests are. Taking the lyrics on face value would suggest that Martin Gore, that black leather mini-skirted songwriter, fancies himself just inches away from being behind glass somewhere in Amsterdam. None of the lyrics are graphic or obscene (although “Personal Jesus,” the lead-off single, caused more than a few pairs of fundamentalist underwear to get into a bunch), but almost all of them give the impression that love is a darkly obsessive, ulcer-­manufacturing and ultimately fatalistic sort of thing. You’ll also get the impression that, were Martin the religious type, he’d be doing a lot of penance for the horrible things that roll about in his head during those sweaty nights.

This can become awfully tiresome. On Music for the Masses, Depeche Mode’s last studio album, it was. Despite a couple of thumpers (“Strangelove” and “Never Let Me Down Again”), Masses got weighed down by its own self-importance and ended up little better than existential elevator music. Violator is every bit as self-important as Masses was; the difference lay in the fact that Violator is more interesting musically than its predecessor.

To manage this, Depeche has reached back into its own past and welded some of the more successful elements in its history onto its more recent sounds. “Personal Jesus” lifts its guitar line almost verbatim from Masses‘ “Pleasure Little Treasure,” and uses it to much greater effect. “World in My Eyes” and “Waiting for the Night” wouldn’t be out of place on A Broken Frame, Depeche’s second album, and Violator’s second single “Enjoy the Silence” sounds as much the sequel to “Leave in Silence” as the title suggests it would be. Ironically, some of the least successful moment on Violator, like “Sweetest Perfection,” are those that are natural progressions from the Music for the Masses’ sound.

The band has also managed, for the first time in several albums, to edit themselves as well. Where they have been previously guilty of sticking musical fragments onto their albums and labelling them songs (“Sometimes” on Black Celebration and “Pimpf’ on Masses), Violator is free of chaff, at least on that level. And as an added bonus, the lyrics, while occasionally tedious, do not insult your intelligence.

The biggest complaint to be leveled against Violator is that it simply never lets up. It’s depressed with a vengeance. “That’s all there is/ Nothing more than you can feel now,” sings Dave Gahan on “World in my Eyes,” and it doesn’t get any cheerier than that: “Policy of Truth” tells its subject after the fact that “You will always wonder how/ It could have been if you’d only lied.” “Halo” notes that “When the walls come tumbling in/ Though we may deserve it/ It will be worth it.” On and on and on. The lightest moments are in “Personal Jesus,” and it’s hardly a lighthearted tune.

This thematic darkness is abetted by the band’s trademark ominous samples; satanic laughs and shouts of “Crucified!” among other less obvious but nevertheless oppressive squawks, honks and squalls. This relentless down trend is a shame, particularly since their lighter moments, when they happen, are usually pretty good (“Here is the House,” and “But Not Tonight” are examples).

Fortunately, Depeche has the sense to give their oppression a beat. In the final analysis, this is and has always been the band’s saving grace; they may be in misery, but they’re never too far gone that they can’t dance to it. If Depeche Mode ever loses sight of this, they will, surely, vanish without a trace under the waves, and it couldn’t be said that they won’t deserve their fate.

As it is, Violator stands on solid ground, a much better album than Music for the Masses would have led us to expect it would be. Old Depeche fans will be thrilled that their favorite band hasn’t run dry, and if you’re not yet a “Modester,” but like the idea of being tunefully pained, this album is for you. Depeche Mode is not our generations’ Pink Floyd, but at least it’s not simply for screaming fourteen-year-olds anymore.

31 thoughts on “And Now, a Word From 20-Year-Old Me: A Review of Depeche Mode’s “Violator”

  1. The kid has talent and basic writing ability, and seems to know his subject well

    He’s rather arrogant and pompous, though. Over-opinionated and something of a know-it-all

    But if he outgrows that, he has some real potential

    I’ll keep my eye on this kid. Maybe in a few years…

  2. You had to be there. The context is everything. Was with a wannabe goth girl back then and we both grooved on the music (when we we’re finding mutual appreciation in each other and our version of what was supposed to be aloof coolness back then).

    Right on for young master Scalzi. They were never Pink Floyd. Still listening to Floyd after many, many years while Depche Mode is an occassional flashback to a time when being down, dark and depressed was just so in.

  3. I still consider myself a Depeche Mode fan and was in college at the same time. I think this review is still pretty accurate. I prefer their earlier albums, especially Speak & Spell back when Vince Clarke was part of DM. Violator was more depressing and gloomy than it needed to be. And “Enjoy the Silence” was the best single off that album.

  4. You might appreciate an obscure disc titled “PM does DM” — Pat MacDonald (of Timbuk3) doing solo guitar covers of Depeche Mode. In the liner notes he says he enjoyed working out how to play those synth-heavy songs on guitar, and friends encouraged him to commit them to recordings.

  5. Early Depeche Mode, back when Vince Clarke was still with them and writing the songs, really needs to be regarded as a separate thing. Their music was bright and cheerful, much like his later bands Yaz and Erasure, and very different from the songs that Martin Gore penned after Clarke’s departure. Gore’s cynicism and singer Gahan’s substance abuse problems intertwined to form a dark world view that dominated the output of the group from Construction Time Again onward. (Gore was also the principal songwriter of their second album, A Broken Frame, but their sound had not yet fully locked in; some of that album still sounds like Clarke in absentia.)

    Violator turned out to be the pinnacle of the band’s commercial success. It is 3xPlatinum here in the US (over 3 million copies sold); nothing else by the band is more than 1xPlatinum, and their last album to reach Gold (500,000 copies) was Exciter in 2001. Part of that success is due to the crossover success of the singles, especially Enjoy The Silence, the band’s only Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.

  6. This is a step down from a certain summer intern whose reviews actually made me want to listen to the music. Of course the 20 year old me probably would’ve as equally arrogant and pompous. (Hell, even today I fight the urge)

  7. This was the album that introduced me to Depeche Mode…and it worked pretty well for writing a kick-ass, somewhat moody, twisted, multigenerational family saga, ski cyberpunk series. Especially “Policy of Truth.”

    (You had to be there….)

  8. Noo too bad.

    I did some music reviews for my high school paper. About the only thing I can remember is drawing a comparison between BTO’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet and The Who’s My Generation and Elton John’s Bennie and the Jets. I don’t have copies of any of that but I do have an audio tape somewhere of some stuff I did for our school’s fifteen minute weekly radio show on our local AM station.

  9. Not bad! But I get the feeling that this reviewer desperately wants his readers to believe that he sprang fully-formed from the broken head of an Olympian at age 20 and was certainly NEVER something as gauche as a 14-year-old.

  10. Your disparaging of Music for the Masses will damn you to an afterlife of pain. Their run of Black Celebration through Songs of Faith and Devotion is the soundtrack to my early adjust life.

  11. As a Dungeons and Dragons addicted geek that danced in the stygian bars in college, I would have been shaking my head and agreeing with nearly every word. 30 years later, yup, I still agree.

  12. Awesome, you found the magic words that will make me run away faster than just about anything (but apparently not before taking the time to leave a comment): “Depeche Mode.” Bye-bye.

  13. My only college music review was DM’s Songs of Faith & Devotion. I nearly had Annie Lennox’s Diva but another writer grabbed it first. I somehow completely missed getting any of the Seattle bands even though I went to school just south of there. My wife made up for it though: she saw everyone in the Seattle scene, most before they were big.

  14. I love the verbosity and the pomposity, but I mostly love how it’s ten paragraphs of explaining why the album falls short of that fourth star.

    As a goth-adjacent teenager in the 90s (I preferred heavy metal but goths were better to hang out with) I liked Violator well enough, but was much more of a Sisters of Mercy fan. It’s also amusing that Violator’s “depression-kink” came out just as the first three Nine Inch Nails were about to turn it into the Disney World version of that.

  15. Nice! Good timing, too; I just listened through all my DM on the USB in the car. Listen to the Nixon mix of Policy of Truth if you can find it.

    Thanks also to Joe G – have to load up Sisters of Mercy for the next run up coast…

  16. Starting with another review’s position as the point of comparison seems flawed. You could have easily referenced a review that thought it was garbage and argued the opposite. I’m not sure what this says about 20-something JS. As a college student working in a music store (so I was one of the arbiters of what was worth listening to, obvs) at the time of its release I can say that I would have burned your review, and befouled your favorite sweatshirt with the ashes. There is a reason that DM was selected to headline the very first Lollapalooza, and it wasn’t because they were terrible. Violator remains one of my favorite CDs.

    The reviewers writing is fine, its his opinions that are all wrong.

  17. I still enjoy Depeche Mode nowadays.
    But the review reminded me was of the character Ted Mosby from How I met your mother.
    When he reminisces on his college days and his pirate radio, his character his just like you on your 20’s.
    I think that speaks volumes on your talent and on the show producers. :)

  18. The 3 stars out of 4 cracked me up. This is like one of those pitchfork reviews where 90% of it is the reviewer either criticizing an album or damning it with faint praise, and then the score turns out to be 7.8

  19. I was going to point out that you’ve apparently always been a cranky old man, but Jim G. said it better.

  20. What I’m most impressed about it that you could go back to that article, find it, and repost it. Did you have to do any scan/ocr, or did you actually have it in a reasonably current document format?

  21. My friends in high school referred to the band as Depressed Mode, there are less adjectives to describe joy and happiness than there are pain, depression and sadness. Black Celebration remains my favorite DM album… my all time favorite album from that era is Disintegration by the Cure… a much darker album and the Cure’s best in my opinion…

  22. Funny how that almost reads like a greatest hits list for the band now.

    You sounded like someone older than 20 in this.

  23. @Christy: Yeah… if I hear anything by Depeche Mode on the radio now (and it’s not new–since they’re still putting out stuff), it’s probably either “Personal Jesus” or “Enjoy The Silence”. Or Johnny Cash’s cover of “Personal Jesus.”

  24. As it turns out, D’Mode is now regarded as one of the five essential 80’s alternative bands (the others being Duran Duran, New Order, The Smiths, and The Cure), and Violator was them at the top of their game. It was one of the first albums I ever had on CD, and definitely worth it.

    (You know about the Depeche Mode drinking game? Put on the Black Celebration album, and drink every time you hear the words “black,” “tonight,” “question,” or “time.” It’s not a game for lightweights. :) )

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