Maybe it’s the hipster in me, but I am immediately wary and cautious when approaching extremely popular and commercially successful music (from the last two decades anyways). There’s a nagging intellectual condescension that if that many people enjoy it, then it has to be too low-brow and not artsy enough to be truly great. My familiarity with Depeche Mode is mostly with their reputation as one of the most popular electronic rock acts of all time and the occasional listen to their biggest hit, “Personal Jesus”. It wasn’t until their album Violator in 1990 that the band would really begin to cement their legacy and the album has sold nearly 15 million copies, which is a lot to put it lightly. So, when I popped Violator in I was expecting a fairly mainstream electro-rock album along the lines of The Killers and that it would be fairly accessible and easy to contend with. I was wrong. Violator is an artistic tour-de-force of dark, sinister passions and wildly experimental electronic orchestrations. After several listens over the last two days, I’m at a loss at how this album was so successful. It’s spectacular but the subject matter is so dark and the style is so experimental that this should be beyond the range of the average listener.
The albums that are considered to be the pioneers of specific genres are often very difficult to appreciate after the fact as decades of popular music has distilled and explored and mutated what they created. While Violator probably isn’t a pioneering album of synthpop (since the entire decade of New Wave that preceded it thoroughly explored the genre), I don’t believe it’s hyperbole to state that Violator was the most appropriate curtain call for New Wave as it masterfully combines the best parts of the genre while simultaneously laying the groundwork for the next decade’s worth of electronic music. While it may be fair to say that this album couldn’t exist without Disintegration, it is even more accurate to say that OK Computer or Kid A would just be a pipe dream were it not for the obvious influences of this album. For the last several years (or since my music tastes matured), it’s been apparent that sonic texturing and emotional escapes into pure music are as effective as traditional melodic structures or vocals. Most albums I’ve reviewed usually fall into one of those two camps, but Violator jumps back and forth across the sonic line and comes out the better for it.
The most obvious track from the album to mention is “Personal Jesus” which still stands as the groups most visible and culturally significant hit. I can only describe the song as intelligent arena rock, although there’s an irony there as it is one of the most simply constructed and, therefore, accessible songs on my album. It’s a great pop anthem, but one of my least favorite songs on the album. For me that honor goes to either the album’s opening number “World In My Eyes” which is a darkly sinister and sexual bit of synth-funk centered on the foreboding vocals and lyrics of lead singer Dave Gahan or “Sweetest Perfection” which is possibly the darkest track on the album which fully explores a vast sonic landscape and sound effects against a tale of obsession and deep and dark chords with a nice change-up towards the end of the song. The entire album is strong from the surprisingly beautiful “Waiting for the Night” which feels like a big influence later on for Radiohead to the dark tale of S&M and sexuality that is “Halo” which is a challenging song but worth wrestling with.
I said at the beginning of the review that I was unable to comprehend how this album sold as well as it did with its dark themes and often disturbing sound, but (after listening to it again while writing this review), I think I understand it. At a surface level, the album is simply stellar electric-pop/funk/rock that anyone can listen to and enjoy. However, the discerning ear can delve into the poetry of the lyrics and the complex orchestration and find so much more to enjoy outside of the funky synthesizers or Dave Gahan’s appealing voice. This is an album that simply demands multiple listens and its perfectly edited length, many listens won’t tire you but will be a pure joy to jump back into the album again and again. It’s one of the most challenging albums I’ve reviewed so far with its heavy subject matter and intense and provocative lyrics, but that is one of many things that makes this album great. If you’re a fan of intelligent pop music, this is a must listen.
Final Score: A