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!
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.