Words Come Crashing In: Depeche Mode’s Violator Revisited

The mechanics of detraction. Because there are traits in popular music where – should you be a serious scholar of sound – the default response is the snigger, a dismissive wave of the hand before something more worthwhile arrives on the turntable.

Think: embarrassing lyrics, pompous stylings, a cloying longevity where the primary constant has long been that of the diminishing return.

Think: puffed-up ego, angst passed off as profound observation, an overbearing odour of naff that just can’t be shaken off.

Right or wrong, these are elements easily attached to the Depeche Mode career path (witness for the prosecution: Dave Gahan’s ridiculous stage persona). You can argue that they’re merely a singles band, that their shtick is reliant upon certain and specific tropes of youthful dissatisfaction, or that the territories where they’re truly successful aren’t necessarily renowned for razor-sharp, musical appreciation.

Your own personal affiliation will dictate the degree of credence you give to any dismissive flourish in the above few paragraphs. Yet context works both ways. Tracks that operate as distinct units. Albums framed against their own dynamic. Musical influence as a facet of who we are and from where we source fixation.

To which: Violator. Released in 1990, studio album #7. A unit shifter on a global scale, with the two lead singles approaching ubiquity in the DM canon.

Whilst preparing these words I sat in a darkened room with a bottle of wine at my side, and then listened to the album on headphones that I paid stupid money for, permitting the timbres and inflexions to wash, to cascade, the nudge and retreat of aural fixation (I could argue that this should be how every record is experienced, but we’ll leave that thought for another time).

By listening, maybe this was a deliberate attempt to disassociate Violator from any of the aforementioned contexts; I’m somewhat smitten with the idea of revisiting when wearing different costume (back in 1990 we knew nothing compared to the über-modern skins we’ve grown into). And that this record is – here in the sublime future of 2012 – a deeply engaging experience indicates not only a young LGM purchasing this disc on day of release, but also emphasises our conclusion that this is the sound of a group at the peak of dexterity, of confidence, of awareness. It’s as if the career trajectory was always building to this album, and anything after is to be filed under anti-climax.

Underlined in my notebook: brooding.

It’s a question of weight, of slant, of a thematic cohesion in which every track not only feeds from the genuflection of its predecessor, but also fosters an understanding of the whole. The production (courtesy of 90’s go-to guy Flood) is slick but extremely nuanced, conscious that each track needs to breathe in order to promote this lick of texture. Martin Gore’s lyrics – occasionally cringe-worthy in a wider context – segue tightly with the runes of composition, of instrumentation; opener ‘World In My Eyes’ therefore acts as enticement, a promise of things to come all wrapped in a refined, 4/4 beat.

Slant is an important epithet when understanding Violator. DM’s gravitation towards those vestiges of experimentation is often overlooked – especially if you’re in the dismissal camp. Even on their early albums there exist detectable traces of avant-garde percussion, of obtuse chord progression, of a subject matter not usually attached to the confines of a best-selling single (for the latter, see also: Smiths, The). You don’t need me to spin words on ‘Enjoy the Silence’, ‘Personal Jesus’, or the Johnny Cash cover there-of – yet through-out this particular album there’s a sense of continuation. The grace and balance of ‘Waiting For The Night’. The slippery urgency of ‘Policy Of Truth’. ‘Blue Dress’, with its Peeping Tom allusions. The synth-buttressed poise and deep black humour of end track ‘Clean’ (Gahan approaching anything but).

Having recently wrapped up some confession of fifty favourite tracks, I’m not going to commit myself to something similar with albums – we’ve got better things to do, people to see, tails to chase. But if I was that way inclined, the overpowering sense of awe this seam of songcraft generates would certainly see it near the top of the pile. And if the point of all these words is reappraisal, maybe there are occasions where we should demure to our 1990 selves.

Depeche Mode / Sweetest Perfection

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7 comments

  1. jprobichaud

    Definitely my favourite DM album and “Waiting for the night” one of my favourite tracks. Earphones is really the only the way to listen to it.

  2. japanese forms (@japaneseforms)

    That bottle of wine should have been inside you and not at your side. I think I have one (physical) DM single… not sure. mrs forms like the odd track on her mp3 player and I quite like some of the singles… particularly ‘Never Let Me Down Again’… Never heard this album but I prefer the Johnny Cash cover of ‘Personal Jesus’ to the original. When I worked in distribution we used to shift shitloads of DM 12″ EPs and singles… I should have picked a few up methinks but at the time it was a band I thought little of.

    • lazerguidedmelody

      DM – one of those acts that polarise. You either get them or you don’t – and if you don’t, the artist on the front cover may as well be Emperor New Clothes. As the first few paragraphs above suggest, I’m not the world’s biggest fan, but the atmospheric nuances this particular album carries are particularly persuasive.

      And an mp3 player? Wow – is mrs forms from the future or something?

  3. japanese forms (@japaneseforms)

    An Mp3 player; I wouldn’t have one in the house, but I admit to owning one (a Sony NW-HD5 which must be considered as “vintage” nowadays and which I haven’t used in years). Vinyl is my format. mrs forms is from another generation.

  4. Alex

    Certainly the album which combines mass appeal with quality song writing better than any other DM album,but I would argue all their material from 86-98 was very high class, Songs Of Faith And Devotion in 93 especially.

    • lazerguidedmelody

      Difficult to argue against too vehemently… although maybe ‘Violator’ ushered in increasingly diminishing returns, whilst I’ve always detected an apartness with ‘Faith & Devotion'; the tight unit drifting off into different directions, the American Gothic underplay (or, perhaps more accurately: Southern Gothic) perhaps clashing with the Basildon heritage. Certainly an album worth a whirl, however.

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