Main chronology:


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1990 8 "World in My Eyes", "Personal Jesus", "Enjoy the Silence"

1) World in My Eyes; 2) Sweetest Perfection; 3) Personal Jesus; 4) Halo; 5) Waiting for the Night; 6) Enjoy the Silence / Interlude #2 (Crucified); 7) Policy of Truth; 8) Blue Dress / Interlude #3; 9) Clean

A stylishly brooding introduction for the new decade and its new sound

New decade, new mood, and the beginning of what many people would consider Depeche Mode to actually be like. No disrespect to the 1980s works of course, but Depeche Mode have carved out their niche from dramatic melancholy and brooding drama and you hear that for the first time in earnest on Violator. Three years after the previous album and a career-spanning compilation behind them, they were ready move forward: for Violator the band changed the way they arranged songs from the ground-up to give more creative control to the whole band rather than just Gore, including the producer Flood who was invited to take a hands-on approach with the album. I'm not certain even Depeche Mode anticipated just how much that would impact the proceedings and just how strongly the new sound would stick for pretty much the rest of their career from here on.

Violator is still at the border of the change, bridging that gap between the stylishly downcast synth pop of the band's 1980s and the drug-fueled personal hell of the immediate future. So, while Depeche Mode do sound a lot moodier and they dress in all black now, the songs are still built around that brightly melodic step they've had in their work to date. "Policy of Truth", "Halo", and "World in My Eyes" are almost upbeat if you squint a little, but it works to the advantage of those songs: as much as they wear their sunglasses at night to hide their demons, they've still turned up for the party. The greatest thing about Violator and why it continues to be such a landmark in Depeche Mode's long history is that it is that great meeting ground between the two very different interpretations of the band, drawing strengths from both. It can be dark and delicate if it wants - the suspenseful yet graceful "Waiting for the Night", the closer two-fer of creeping darkness of "Blue Dress" and "Clean" - but it's also just great to hear how that lingering darkness merges with the band's knack for a spectacular synth pop hook.

The actually greatest thing about Violator is its big standout example of how those two worlds can meet and that's "Enjoy the Silence", not just a purely and beautifully perfect song but one of the very best tracks of the 1990s: the sort of song where you feel like the band's entire existence has built up to this very moment and in a scant over four minutes they've ascended to Olympus with no contest. Gahan immediately solidifies his position as one of the great frontmen of his genre with his coldly charismatic delivery, dripping of pathos and drama while retaining the quiet intensity. He narrates over Gore's greatest piece of writing and melody (the chorus, in particular, is instantly immortal and awe-striking), with credit to Wilder who had the instinct to turn the song from a ballad into something you can dance to. "Enjoy the Silence" is one of those songs where on each and every listen, no matter if its ranking in the hundreds, it has somehow retained its freshness and timelessness, endlessly re-revealing just how richly arranged and composed it is. It's the reason why I have ended up with as many Depeche Mode albums in my shelf as I have, and if I ever were able to draft up a list of the greatest songs of all time it'd have a reserved spot. After this Depeche Mode would only rarely be as luxuriously melodic as they are on "Enjoy the Silence", but it also has that depth and style that would often be blatantly absent in the works prior to it. If there's a perfect example of Violator, it is it.

"Enjoy the Silence" does quite frankly tower over the rest of Violator but the other eight songs do do a good job of matching it. "Personal Jesus" is the other signature highlight here and it's easy to forget after all the lackluster covers and remixes you've heard of it over the years just how captivating the original version actually is, from the iconic "reach out and touch faith!" to the style-flip finale jam where the nightmare honky-tonk stomp of the song is transformed into a sleek synth march. As is typical for Depeche Mode albums, the singles generally are among the best offerings: "World in My Eyes" is one of their greatest opening tracks which smoothly throws you into the album's rabbit hole with one alluring and simultaneously ominous melody after another, and while "Policy of Truth" is the closest on the album to the 1980s hits, it does Violator well to have that moment of brightness while still marrying with the album's aesthetic faultlessly. Most of the album is rather strong, in fact, and the less obvious highlights like "Blue Dress" and "Clean" have only gotten better with age too: the churn of the latter is an almost unsettling way to end the record, acting as the moment where the band complete their fall into darkness thatthe next album would pick up from. The only vague weak link is "Sweetest Perfection", which sounds like an early prototype for the next two albums and isn't quite ready come out of the oven yet, but its worthwhile to say that its instrumental "solo" section is a stand-out moment on the album all on its own.

All of that isn't quite enough to call Violator a classic by any measure or form, and rather it exemplifies the generally solid standard Depeche Mode tends to operate on: it's another Very Good album of theirs in a long list of others, except that this one also has the privilege of hosting "Enjoy the Silence". There are better Depeche Mode albums - though not many - but I don't think any of them are as comfortably approachable or listenable as Violator: you don't need to have your mind set to a particular mood to listen to it like you might need with the more lightweight synthesizers of the earlier days or with the "pain and suffering in various tempos" of the latter days. It is, perhaps, the best way to quickly define Depeche Mode - their quintessential release in its fashionably timeless gloom and groove.

Physically: Jewel case with a lyrics booklet. Everything is overwhelmingly black, and the band photos are so small you have to actively hunt them down.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2009 4 "In Chains", "Fragile Tension", "Miles Away/The Truth Is

1) In Chains; 2) Hole to Feed; 3) Wrong; 4) Fragile Tension; 5) Little Soul; 6) In Sympathy; 7) Peace: 8) Come Back; 9) Spacewalker; 10) Perfect; 11) Miles Away/The Truth Is; 12) Jezebel; 13) Corrupt

A return to the old sound doesn't unfortunately equal to return to the old songwriting.

The first thing on Sounds of the Universe that leaves an impression is the sound. In fact, it’s the one thing that everyone focused on. Depeche Mode’s own comments about the album around the time of its release were largely about its chosen sound world and how the work on the album began when they dusted off some of their early synthesizers, and decided to bring them back to the spotlight. Befittingly, the fans then talked about the flashback production and how reminiscent it was of the earlier albums and the glory days. Most of the critical reception struggled to start their reviews without mentioning the production. Even the name of the album is on the game. And, well, fair enough - Sounds of the Universe does sound really nice. It’s a merger of the old and the new where older analogue synths buzz together with more modern sensibilities which is neat on its own, but the real important thing is that with it some of the overt sheen that was all over the last few albums prior to this has been scraped off. That little edge that was missing for a while is back and it complements the band’s romantic doom and gloom ethos far better than the gloss. Sounds of the Universe doesn’t feature an awe-inspiring production job by any means, but it suits the band in question perfectly.

It’s apparent soon enough that the reason no one ever talks about anything else but the sound is because there’s in fact little else to talk about Sounds of the Universe. It’s not because of lack of trying, certainly. The production harks back to the early 90s when the band were their most consistently solid with their writing, while the songwriting style is a fairly clear continuation on the ideas the preceding late-career highlight Playing the Angel rode on: Gahan even brings back the same co-writer pals from outside the band that he collaborated with on Angel for another three-song set. The problem is, by drawing these direct comparison points to past glories it simply underlines how this time the songs just aren’t up to scratch: the melodies are barely there, the attempted hooks and big moments come off half-baked and the revitalised energy from the last album is all gone. The most memorable songs on the album are such for all the wrong reasons: the primary singles “Wrong” and “Peace” are the two instantly catchiest songs on the album, but the former is borderline hilarious in its aggressive repetitiveness that has worn off its novelty by the time the first verse has finished and the latter is an admittedly fine chorus desperately trapped between throwaway verses. But at least they stand out: mostly Sounds of the Universe leaves through one ear as soon as it’s entered the other. To be more precise, the album isn’t guilty of being poor - it simply verges on completely unmemorable.

Credit where credit is due, Sounds isn’t entirely without its merits. Gahan at least tries to get as much out of the material he’s been given as he can and his vocal performances are one of the constant shining lights throughout. The real best songs of the album – “Fragile Tension” and “Miles Away/The Truth Is” – largely repeat the tricks that worked on Playing the Angel but with diminishing returns; they’re the best of the bunch here because they actively get the listener engaged when they enter the fray by boasting the best arrangements and melodies of the album, but it wouldn’t also be particularly agonising should I never hear them again. For the most part, if anything, Sounds of the Universe proves that covering weak songwriting with a neat production job only carries for so far and for so long. Even though sonically this is probably the best Depeche Mode have been since the late-90s, it doesn’t matter much when the songs don’t have anything going on for them. And indeed - if the sound is all people talked about Sounds of the Universe around its release, it’s telling that these days people simply forget to talk at all about the album.

Physically: Standard jewel case with a lyrics booklet.

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