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Violator: Depeche Mode Lay Down Their Legacy
Violator - Depeche Mode
Member Name: Hishyeness
Violator - Depeche Mode
Advantages: A musical and lyrical tour de force. The zenith of DM's musical development.
Disadvantages: None to speak of.
Having written Music for the Masses and completed a massive world-wide tour, it was three years before Depeche Mode (DM) found the energy to put together their next studio effort. Having been spoiled by the relatively short gap between the watershed Black Celebration (1986) and Music for the Masses (1987) the wait seemed like veritable torture to their legion of fans - me included. Fortunately, they produced an album of craft and character that richly rewarded their devotees.
If the language I use seems to have faintly religious connotations, it's because with Violator, Depeche Mode arguably reached the height of their main stream popularity and cultivated a loyal following that has zealously stuck with them through thick and thin for the last twenty years.
Their most successful single from the album "Enjoy the Silence" even won "Best Single" at the 1991 Brit Awards - a level of success in the UK that the band had never achieved - and never would again.
Violator, DM's seventh studio album, was released in March 1990 and still remains the band's best-selling album worldwide. This is the penultimate album with Alan Wilder before he left the band, leaving Andrew Fletcher, David Gaham and Martin Gore as a trio after 1993's "Songs of Faith and Devotion".
The simple black album cover with it's distinctive single lacquered red rose sets the tone for the rest of the album - at times dark, gothic and raw, at others, orchestral, buouyant, and - atypical for DM - soaring with unbridled optimism.
The album spawned four singles - the controversial "Personal Jesus", the smash hit "Enjoy the Silence", "World in My Eyes" and "Policy of Truth". Ironically - in my view anyway - these were not the best songs on Violator, but such is the quality of the album that it's not hard to see why they did so well.
The album comes in two versions - the original 1990 release (a ridiculously cheap £3.28 on Amazon), and a 2006 Collector's Edition (a steal at £7.98 from the same e-tailer). The latter includes a bonus CD with the whole album repeated in DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1, a DVD documentary, and a number of extra tracks (all of which were B-sides to the album's singles releases). This review relates to the original 1990 version.
The album is best listened to as a whole. Songs often segue into each other with a brief musical interlude between them, and some of the nuance is lost if you dip in and out - kind of like watching the third act of an opera with no knowledge of what has gone on before. You can appreciate it artistically, but you won't have the context to provide an added layer of richness and depth to the experience. That said, I have chosen a few songs that offer a decent representation of the variety and scope of Violator and also happen to be my favourites.
> World in My Eyes
The album opens with DM promising to take "you on a trip around the world and back, and you won't have to move you just sit still". Although meant in an entirely different context, this is exactly what DM do for the listener with Violator. A positive, uplifting though seductive and sensual song - the "world" being explored in the lyrics of the song appears to be his partner's body.
"I'll take you to the highest mountain, to the depths of the deep blue sea, and you won't need a map believe me..."
> Personal Jesus
Released in 1989, almost six months before Violator, I was ambivalent about this song for a long time, dismissing it as an obvious parody of bible-thumping Christian televangelists ("lift up the receiver I'll make you a believer"). The song is much deeper than that, but I will leave you to draw your own conclusions as it means different things to different people.
However, I have had almost twenty years to get used to it and it has grown on me immensely. It has a very catchy, drum and guitar based sound which is quite different to DM's normally synth dominated style. It has since been covered by Marilyn Manson (quite decently if you like his sort of sound).
"Your own personal Jesus, someone to hear your prayers, someone who cares"
> Waiting for the Night
A brooding, atmospheric and evocative tour de force, with understated synths, accompanied superbly by Gahan's distinctive vocals and Gore's harmonising. I have often sat in the dark, headphones on, listening to this song and feeling hypnotised and totally relaxed by the heartbeat like backing track, letting it all wash over me.
"I'm waiting for the night to fall, when everything is bearable, and there in the still, all that you feel is tranquillity"
> Enjoy the Silence
The song, following Waiting for the Night, drags you quickly out of the introspective melancholy of its predecessor with almost gleeful abandon. An unbearably catchy song, this will be the one you've heard before but didn't know was DM. Upbeat, joyous and very danceable, this is one of my favourite tracks. Ironically. Martin Gore, the band's main songwriter had originally written the song with a ballad in mind, but fortunately, the band talked him round to a faster, boppier version. The rest is history.
"All I ever wanted, all I ever needed, is here in my arms. Words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm"
> Blue Dress
Every DM album has at least one song fronted by Martin Gore, whose distinctive, tremulous voice adds a slightly unearthly and dreamlike quality to this song. It starts with a warbling synth track before Gore's mellifluous, earnest vocals kick in. A lot of DM's songs have hidden meaning, but their ambiguity means that they can be interpreted in different ways. I don't know what Gore intended, but for me, it's about a man trying to tell a significant other that she looks perfect - and satisfies him - in the particular Blue Dress of the title.
"Put it on and stand before my eyes. Put it on, please don't question why. Can you believe something so simple, something so trivial, makes me a happy man?"
After the quiet contemplation and simplicity of Blue Dress, Clean starts like a tide slapping tentatively against the quay, before building and building into a deafening orchestral crescendo more akin to a tsunami. The song starts relatively quietly, but layers upon layer of nuance and instrumentation is added to it ever so subtly until, along with the lyrics you "twist and.. turn as [you] ride with the tide." Gahan pilots a way through the storm with an accomplished vocal performance. A satisfying, fulfilling finale that paradoxically leaves you wanting more. A lot more.
"I don't advise and I don't criticise, I just know what I like with my own eyes."
Without doubt, Violator is DM's most accomplished and polished effort, somehow finding a way to navigate the tricky waters between mainstream popularity and the demands of a discerning and loyal fan base. Violator is that rarest of beasts - a popular and critical success, that is not only a logical milestone in the bands development and evolution, but also manages to steer clear of committing the ultimate sacrilege - that of selling out.
Although fans point to Black Celebration as the band's watershed, this for me is undoubtedly the zenith of DM's artistic development. The album works magnificently as a coherent whole. The production is first rate and the tracks logically and thoughtfully placed. For every point there is a counterpoint. Like a hiker climbing a mountain, bursts of energy are tempered by moments of pause allowing you to reflect and take it all in.
Almost twenty years since its release, and Violator is still a musical and lyrical journey well worth embarking on - a quality recognised by Rolling Stone magazine, who ranked it amongst their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. If you were to buy one album from the DM canon, this would have to be it.
FULL TRACK LISTING
World in My Eyes (4:26)
Sweetest Perfection (4:43)
Personal Jesus (4:56)
Waiting for the Night (6:07)
Enjoy the Silence (6:12)
Policy of Truth (4:55)
Blue Dress (5:41)
© Hishyeness 2009
Summary: DM at their most accomplished.