I’ll say this going in: I’ve never much cared for Depeche Mode. Over time, I’ve developed a sort of bemused appreciation for their longterm success, but that’s mainly because I don’t understand it; near as I can tell, the band has recorded one non-miserable song in the last 30 years, meaning that everyone in Depeche Mode has either been in a terrible mood for decades or they’re putting on an act — and that the band’s millions of fans are either too stupid to realize this or they have a bottomless hunger for infinite variations of the same sad song.
I’ve given up trying to decide which explanation makes more sense, and these days, I actually sort of look forward to hearing them tinker with their sound on new albums. But in 1990, I was a rabid rock snob with a chip on my shoulder against drum machines, modern rock radio, and the kids in my school who always wore black and looked sad. If Depeche Mode wasn’t my least favorite band on the planet, they were definitely close — and all of the above speaks to the strength of the group’s seventh album, because in spite of all that raging bias, I had to admit Violator was pretty damn solid.
I think most people would agree that Violator is Depeche Mode’s best album, and it’s certainly their most successful. But if you weren’t around when it was released, what you probably don’t understand is how heavily anticipated it was. Consider that “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy the Silence,” two of the band’s best songs, are on the album — and that they were both released as singles before Violator reached stores in March of 1990. This had a lot to do with Mute and Sire leading with the album’s strongest material, but it isn’t like the rest of the record was hurting for singles (“Policy of Truth” and “World in My Eyes” would have been standouts on any other album). More importantly, the whole thing hangs together really well — Martin Gore delivered nine of his strongest songs, and the band hired Flood to produce, which was a stroke of genius because it resulted in a pleasantly grungy sheen being added to the patented Depeche Mode blend of classically dour pop songcraft and precise, arid arrangements.
Flood’s influence exerted itself in different ways — from the grinding cowboy swagger of “Personal Jesus” to the use of (gasp!) real drums on the closing track, “Clean” — but all of them took the band in a new direction that, for better and worse, has helped shape the latter half of their career. For a not-inconsiderable chunk of Depeche Mode’s fans, Violator is the standard by which the rest of the band’s albums are measured, and I think that’s appropriate. Unless you’re the kind of person who really does love to wallow in misery, you don’t need an entire collection of bleak synthpop records — you only need one really, really good one. That’s Violator in a pale, heavily mascaraed nutshell.
Those are the intellectual components of why I think Violator works, but they have very little to do with why I occasionally listen to it today; the album’s enduring appeal is, for me, reflective of just how huge it was in the spring of 1990 (a time when Depeche Mode shared Top 40 real estate with Go West, if you can imagine that). My girlfriend at the time was a sweet and innocent Mormon girl whose relentlessly pleasant demeanor couldn’t have been further removed from Dave Gahan’s moaning self-loathing, and she spun Violator to death. That’s the kind of album it was — the Thriller of its genre, a collection of songs that didn’t sacrifice integrity for cross-format appeal. It wasn’t even one of the five top-selling albums of 1990, but there isn’t a record executive who wouldn’t happily inject himself with venereal disease to have its kind of success today.