With the start of the nineties, alternative rock was beginning to take the place of synthpop in the heart of the mainstream. With Violator, however, Depeche Mode managed to reconcile the two and incidentally capitalize on their timing, popularizing (and arguably helping to invent) a new genre: new wave.
Like a large majority of dance music, the album’s general ambiance is one of amorality and borderline sleaziness, as it practically worships both. These characteristics, paired with the album’s dark lyrics, would bring Depeche Mode into the new decade with an explosion, eventually appealing to both the DJ’s and the “underground” crowd.
“Halo,” “Personal Jesus,” “Enjoy the Silence,” “Blue Dress,” and “World in My Eyes” all ring with the topic of human pleasure and its positivity. “Blue Dress” even ventures into what lead singer Martin Gore called “pervy” territory, saying that watching a woman dress herself “makes the world go around.”
Meanwhile, both “Halo” and “Enjoy the Silence” glorify the concept of one-on-one, solitary love. In one of the band’s most recognizable pieces of music, “Enjoy the Silence” goes from a slow ballad into an upbeat dance rhythm with the words, “All I ever wanted/All I ever needed/Is here in my arms/Words are very unnecessary/They can only do harm.”
Besides the lyrics (which give more “implicit” suggestions about their meaning) perhaps the greatest contribution to the album’s semi-sadistically hedonistic vibe is Gore’s vocals—edgy, sleazy, and with a hint of nonchalance and arrogance, they are the perfect complement to music which is played in both the discotheques and the rock halls. Some of the most interesting vocals on the album can be heard, for example, in “Policy of Truth,” as dizzyingly overlapping voices and synthesizers give the listener juxtaposed feelings of both uneasiness and calm.
The instrumentation, on one hand, is heavily inspired and follows the trends of the eighties. Synths, echoing percussion, and richly drawn-out guitars are all signs of the album’s origins. On the other hand, the compositions of Violator demonstrate Depeche Mode’s first moves into newer, more experimental territory.
The success of “Enjoy the Silence” is even attributable to this innovation, as instead of Gore completing the entire demo (as they had done in their previous albums), keyboard player Alan Wilder took the song from a slow-paced harmonium to an upbeat dance track. In this way, the artistic license taken by the band flowed into the mainstream, thereafter widely influencing both pop and alternative music.
Despite the album’s components lacking much innovation for the time (vocals similar to Gore’s were common of the eighties, along with the instruments used), the album’s greatest experimentation lies in its ability to take essentially electronic music and give it its own sinister personality. Regret (“Policy of Truth”), reckless love (“Halo”) and unadulterated human desires such as in “Blue Dress” are described in a sentimentally unashamed fashion. The mainstream rise of grunge can even be attributed in part to the darkness of Violator, as Gore commented, “We decided our first record of the nineties ought to be different.”
In terms of popularity, the decision to experiment with sound and lyrics ended up being the band’s best decision to date. Though it received mixed reviews (some critics even claiming the band was selling out to teenagers who solely wanted a party), Violator propelled Depeche Mode into incredible fame in the United States and the UK, and eventually became renowned as a classic. Perhaps its greatest impact, however, was its paving the way for other alternative artists into the mainstream media, allowing a greater diversity of musical creativity to become exposed to a large audience.
Violator marked Depeche Mode’s peak; with over fifteen million copies sold, it is currently the band’s best-selling album to date. The best moments within Violator conveniently come in the form of Depeche Mode’s two most popular singles: “Enjoy the Silence” and “Personal Jesus.” The latter is heavy and founded on rhythmic bass in lieu of synthesizers, a breakaway from the band’s typical usage of electronic instrumentation. The dark, alternative feel of the composition goes hand-in-hand with its slightly condescending and irreverent message, fitting into the niche of the pre-grunge era. On the other hand, “Enjoy the Silence” manages to simultaneously be soothing yet epic, thanks to the band’s newly-found mode of writing music.
The irony of Violator – its multiple references to sacred topics while being incredibly amoral – gives the album its ambiguously sleazy appeal. Overall, the album is not musically perfect or thought-provoking, but it is undeniably catchy; its ability to be both a “classic” and a “guilty pleasure” has made the album one of the greatest alternative successes to date.
Three years later, Songs of Faith and Devotion was released to less explosive popularity, and already-present tensions within the band were exaggerated to the point where Wilder quit the band to make his side project, Recoil, his full-time focus.
Alcoholism, depression, and drug addiction were all tribulations Depeche Mode subsequently experienced throughout the late nineties, but the band is still active today as a trio. After having overcome their personal and group struggles, they have released six albums since Violator, the latest of which was Delta Machine in 2013.
Depeche Mode are commonly cited as one of the most globally influential bands in the history of alternative, and new artists, from The Killers to Shakira, continue to use the band’s incredibly “spine-tingling” music as an influence.
Reviewer: Kaitlyn Rabe
IRC: Lucy Patton
Powered by Facebook Comments