Depeche Mode – Songs of Faith and Devotion
In between Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion, a lot happened: Nirvana rewrote the ideas of what “alternative” was supposed to be, while Nine Inch Nails hit the airwaves as the most clearly Depeche-influenced new hit band around. In the meantime, the band went through some high-profile arguing as David Gahan turned into a long-haired, leather-clad rocker and pushed for a more guitar-oriented sound. Yet the odd thing about Songs of Faith and Devotion is that it sounds pretty much like a Depeche Mode album, only with some new sonic tricks courtesy of Alan Wilder and co-producer Flood. Perhaps even odder is the fact that it works incredibly well all the same. “I Feel You,” opening with a screech of feedback, works its live drums well, but when the heavy synth bass kicks in with the wailing backing vocals, even most rockers might find it hard to compete. Martin Gore’s lyrical bent, as per the title, ponders relationships through distinctly religious imagery; while the gambit is hardly new, on songs like the centerpiece “In Your Room,” the combination of personal and spiritual love blends perfectly. Outside musicians appear for the first time, including female backing singers on a couple of tracks, most notably the gospel-flavored “Condemnation” and the uilleann pipes on “Judas,” providing a lovely intro to the underrated song (later covered by Tricky). “Rush” is the biggest misstep, a too obvious sign that Nine Inch Nails was a recording-session favorite to unwind to. But with other numbers such as “Walking in My Shoes” and “The Mercy in You” to recommend it, Songs of Faith and Devotion continues the Depeche Mode winning streak.
The Depeche Mode of 1993 arrived in the noisiest of fashions with the first single to be lifted from ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’, ‘I Feel You’. From the first moments of that track it was clear that Depeche Mode wanted to put their past behind them, the track opening with seven seconds of howling feedback that some journalists compared to the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Eraserhead, before a dirty blues riff from Martin Gore and crashing, processed live drums kicked in; organ grooves, gospel ascendancy and stirring, rousing vocals from Dave Gahan made it clear that this was a Depeche Mode who wanted to be taken very seriously indeed by the rock press.
And to go with that harder sound, with any trace of ‘pure’ electronics buried almost immeasurably deep beneath a murky rock cacophony, came a new image for Dave Gahan. In the downtime between ‘Violator’ and ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’, Dave Gahan was suddenly re-cast as the quintessential rock frontman – long hair, a body literally covered in tattoos, and all the nihilistic excesses and tendencies we have come to associate with rock royalty. The change of image somehow gave credence to Depeche Mode’s new, more organic sound but it came with a dose of ballsy hyperbole from Gahan during the promotion of the album and its tour, the singer even going so far as to risibly claim that Depeche Mode were responsible for the development of grunge; his growing chemical dependencies would also lead to painfully slow progress at the recording sessions in Madrid and Hamburg, much to the frustration of the rest of the band.
Image reboot to one side, the other big change was Martin Gore’s lyric writing. With songs like ‘Condemnation’ and ‘Walking In My Shoes’, Gore was suddenly striving for a sort of religious salvation, almost as if he was in need of redemption for some vast life of sin. Previous albums had contained songs that referenced spirituality, but here was a whole album neatly split between the album title’s themes of faith and devotion. ‘Condemnation’, with its world weary imagery of a man accepting his punishment with bitter grace was the album’s towering moment, full of hand-wringing angst, regret and disappointment. Gahan had never sounded like he does on ‘Condemnation’ before; his voice has a gravelly, almost slurred quality that adds to the wretchedness of the man on trial here, the slow motion wonky piano, drums and humming in the music giving this a queasy sense of muted euphoria. The combination of Alan Wilder’s studio expertise and Gahan’s vocal development on ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ were the crucial elements required to execute Gore’s lyrical themes; Wilder, in conjunction with the album’s producer Flood, gave Gore’s songs a grainy atmosphere that was more or less the polar opposite of the far cleaner sound of ‘Violator’. Grinding bass, skeketal, creeping synths, an unlikely funk guitar on ‘Mercy In You’, uillean pipes on ‘Judas’, a string orchestra on the haunting ‘One Caress’, scratched distorted hip-hop breaks on the affirming gospel of ‘Get Right With Me’, the psychedelic uplift of ‘Higher Love’ – all of this was virgin territory for Depeche Mode, setting ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ a world apart from anything else they’d done. Only the electro-rock angst of ‘Rush’ seemed remotely related to the earlier Mode sound.
‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ is one of several pivotal albums in Depeche Mode’s back catalogue, not least because it would be the catalyst for a massive change in the band. The accompanying fourteen-month global tour would see Andrew Fletcher quit the band temporarily through stress and Gore suffering from seizures brought on, in his words, by extreme exhaustion. Alan Wilder quit the band completely when the tour was over to focus on his Recoil side-project leaving a major studio gap in the band that subsequent albums have never quite filled. As for Gahan, the excesses of rock star life caught up with him savagely, the singer overdosing from a cocktail of hard drugs and actually dying for a brief few seconds, narrowly avoiding becoming another rock star fatality. That the band are still together, and back producing some of their strongest songs yet, remains something of a surprise after the career pinnacle that was ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ and the ensuing strain it caused – but thankfully they are.
Words by Mat Smith
‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ was released in the UK in March 1993.