Seamlessly fused grungy guitars and live drums to the band’s electronic instincts, taking the best parts of early 90s music to make something fresh.
The first sound you hear on Songs of Faith and Devotion is a loud screech, like someone hitting the emergency brake on a train. But as that noise gives way to a distorted and wonderfully sloppy guitar riff, it’s clear that the brakes have failed and there’s no stopping this careening vehicle. This album is Depeche Mode flying off the rails and losing control.
After the breakout success of Violator, Depeche Mode took a break, reconvening a couple years later to craft a follow-up. But everyone was on a different page or out of sorts. Martin Gore felt crushing stress trying to write songs that could match “Personal Jesus” or “Enjoy the Silence.” Alan Wilder and Gore weren’t getting along. Dave Gahan, influenced by his time in L.A., wanted to make a rock record and was in the midst of a heroin addiction. Adding to the pressure, producer Flood suggested the band live together in a house, to write and record in a different environment. But all that did was amplify the existing conflicts with no chance for the group to get a break from each other. It’s telling that this is the last album Wilder did with Depeche Mode.
By all accounts, this should’ve resulted in an unmitigated disaster. Instead, Songs of Faith and Devotion is Depeche Mode’s best album. It may have had a horrendously difficult birth, but no one could argue with the strength of the results. The record seamlessly fused grungy guitars and live drums to the band’s electronic instincts, taking the best parts of early ’90s music to make something fresh.
Songs like “Mercy in You” and “Walking in My Shoes” exemplify this approach. The former squeezes out a taut funk riff and turns it into part of the rhythm. The latter is instantly recognizable from its catchy, oddly-warped piano melody, driven forward by hip-hop infused beat. Move “Rush” a bit more towards rock and you have a Jane’s Addiction song. Move it more towards electronica and you have a new rave anthem. Keep it where it is and you have Depeche Mode.
Even songs that sounded more like traditional Depeche Mode succeed on the strength of Gore’s superb songwriting. “In Your Room” bubbles with tension and desire, only to break loose during a powerful, seductive chorus. This is a song for dark bedrooms and hidden alleyways. “Higher Love” is the opposite, its call for a more intense, pure type of love building to a rapturous anthem.
The songs Gore sings also stand out in Depeche Mode’s catalog, sounding unlike anything else they’ve done before or since. The uilleann pipes of “Judas” bring forth a hauntingly beautiful atmosphere, like feeling the ghostly presence of your ancestors. “One Caress” is built on art film strings and an all-time great vocal by Gore.
Speaking of powerful vocal performances, Gahan is the VIP of Songs of Faith and Devotion. Despite being in the throes of addiction, he contributes the best singing of his career to the album. On “I Feel You,” his voice is a hurricane-strength gale. On the gospel tinges of “Condemnation,” he sings out notes loud and long enough to feel like he’s reaching for heaven itself. Given that he spent most of the recording sessions holed up in his room, his voice is the sound of weeks of energy released in the course of a few minutes.
Depeche Mode took all their frustration and conflict and put them into each note, its tribulations found in every melody. Songs of Faith and Devotion turned that immeasurable pressure into a diamond of an album. At its best, it’s an otherworldly, divine experience. As Gore sang on “Judas,” “the narrowest path is always the holiest.”