“Everything that you write has to come from the heart. It’s as simple as that.”Martin Gore
Following the success of Violator, synthpop icons Depeche Mode took a brief intermission before retreating to Madrid to Live Together, Record Together… and It Was Going to Be Wonderful, with two out of three being true. They did live together and record 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion, a nod to its spiritual feel, but while the record is rightfully recognized as one of their best, the experience came close to being their last as a group.
In their 2006 short documentary, songwriter Martin Gore acknowledged the vibe between the recording of Violator and SOFAD was “worlds apart”. Producer Flood reaffirmed it was an “incredibly hard record to make”. When reflecting on his final album with Depeche Mode, composer/drummer Alan Wilder said they suffered due to the lingering pressure to live up to the success of their previous album. This time around, the experience was less of a collective effort. Although they were “jamming… perhaps the frustration of not immediately getting a result wore us down”. Singer Dave Gahan was battling drug addiction and regrettably “wasn’t there most of the time”, but looking back, he’s thankful as “somehow that record got finished” despite feeling they were “batting on different teams”. As a superhuman, Gahan managed to give his all, ranking his vocals on “Condemnation” as the all-time greatest.
During a promotional interview in London in which Depeche Mode took questions from around the world, the quartet remained somewhat composed, even when a fan asked, “have you ever written a song based on a personal experience?” prompting Gore to state the obvious, “Everything I do is based on personal experience.” Of course, we can’t fault fans for asking this and attempting to shake out a few song meanings along the way, but what we have here is another songwriter hoping the audience will find their own meaning when absorbing the material in lieu of asking for the “secret” family recipe.
The mystique of an artist and the uncertainty tied to the artistic process is nothing, if not personal. We don’t know exactly what went on behind the curtain, which is good. The restaurant menu, like the album’s liner notes, only lists the main ingredients leaving the rest up for interpretation. Wilder said it best when he suggested that “in the face of adversity, you often produce your best work”, and 30 years later, the fruits of their labor continue to reward.
Songs of Faith and Devotion begins by rattling your core immediately, so fastening your seatbelt is best. As the sound of synthesized tires screech, you’ll swerve out of control as the inevitable happens; you’re hit head-on by the seductive single “I Feel You”. In the afterglow, Gahan sings his lover’s praises. His baritone vocals laid over heavy drums and guitar is intoxicating, with a visual that adds more to the fantasy. At 4:00 minutes in, we become voyeurs as Gahan seduces his lover (and viewer) by unbuttoning and removing his shirt. Just as things are heating up, the song and video fade out, but those following the lyrics know this is only the beginning. A remix by Brian Eno was added to the remastered album in 2006, containing a bit more “ambiance”.
The slow-burning message in “Walking in My Shoes” has been said many times through the years (“you don’t know how it feels to be me”), but not like this. Depeche Mode deliver a touching and authentic song that I cannot help but direct my empathy towards. We’re taught early on to be kind to others because we don’t know what they’re going through, but we spend our lives judging them. In this case, I no longer feel you; I feel FOR you. My only wish is that the visual aged as well, and we could digitally erase imagery, which I’m sure was not intended to be comical. Losing the intended concept that represents this timeless song is a setback.
Depeche Mode pushed their spiritual sound further with the gospel stylings of “Condemnation”. Gore said of the writing process, “sometimes you just sit there, and you write a song, and all the words flow. That was one of those times.” Gahan refers to the single as his breakthrough and “monumental moment”, as he immediately knew the song. “There was something very special about it.” However, you commemorate this piece of poetry, this hymn, with the power to exude something bigger than ourselves, listen (and live) without prejudice. “Please open your eyes.” In this brief moment in time, angels sing, and slightly more so in the “Paris Mix”, which was paired with the song’s visual.
Throughout the equally gripping “In Your Room”, Gahan asks, “Will I always be here?” which makes the song even more haunting. He also notes it’s “one of my favorites for live shows”. Fans will find it interesting that the remix by Butch Vig, “Zephyr Mix”, was chosen as the single over the album version. Not to mention, you could only catch the music video after-hours on MTV because of the lyrics and visual hints at BDSM. I adore Depeche Mode remixes – the only items I ever purchased on eBay in the early 2000s – but I prefer the album version with a slightly slower pace for the tension it brings.
One could say that if you name a song “Judas”, you’re asking to be condemned. It’s a polarizing word, just ask Lady Gaga. But if we take biblical references out of the equation and focus on the word meaning traitor, this stripped-down “arrogant love song” could convey selfishly assuming someone will give themselves to you with its “if you want my love” to-do list, which includes suffering and risking your health. I’m in awe of the layers of voices heard toward the end, as they include studio secretaries and kitchen staff. Sounds were processed to sound like it was “sung in a deep southern church hall in the 1960s” versus a recording studio.
“Rush” has an industrial rock sound that was prevalent in the 1990s with help from groups like Nine Inch Nails and Nitzer Ebb, who also emerged in the late 1980s. The aggression-laced song could easily fit into singer Trent Reznor’s portfolio. The crossover here is that Flood co-produced Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine years earlier and would assist with The Downward Spiral the following year (1994). Flood and Wilder also worked on several Nitzer Ebb albums.
On “One Caress”, Gore retakes center stage as songwriter and vocalist. I recently found myself down a Reddit rabbit hole, wondering if other fans had drawn comparisons between his and Gahan’s vocals here (and on several other tracks). This brief but mighty track on Songs of Faith and Devotion is made more memorable with the addition of an impressive 28-piece string section. The seemingly dreary lyrics laid over light and airy composition lend the song a feeling of optimism. Maybe going to the dark side isn’t so bad. Especially when songs like this exist to carry us. The under-the-radar visual slightly adds to the song’s cinematic feel, but the artistic geniuses behind it could have gone much bigger.
The over one-minute build into “Higher Love” pays off. Whatever your interpretation of a higher love is, Gahan (and songwriter Gore) can vouch that finding yours will lift you higher. This is the closing song on Songs of Faith and Devotion, but the opening number throughout Depeche Mode’s Devotional Tour with director Anton Corbijn serving as visual imagery creative genius. During the live performance, where I wish I had been in attendance, the song’s climax is noticeably postponed while Depeche Mode play behind the sheer drapery, and a rousing crowd waits four minutes for Gahan to step out from behind the curtain where he can be celebrated the way he’s meant to be heard, without obstruction.
After learning about what Depeche Mode went through to conceive Songs of Faith and Devotion, amidst a grueling tour schedule and dire health issues, they not only prevailed, the next two albums they released were Ultra and Exciter.
I honor this gift of pure adoration for art. It’s inspiring, and like everything designed, it’s a moment in time that words can’t necessarily describe. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t tasked with conveying my thoughts via stars. Everyone is welcome to take from it and interpret it as they wish, find its sweetest perfection, and feel something bigger than themselves. We can all believe in this, something higher.
- Depeche Mode: Exciter
- (Just) Boys from Basildon: The Depeche Mode Reissues
- Depeche Mode – “Where's the Revolution” (Singles Going Steady)
- Slipped Disc: Depeche Mode – Sounds of the Universe
- 'Depeche Mode: Monument' Is Everything a Depeche Mode Fan Could Imagine
- The Stigma of Synth: My Secret Life with Depeche Mode
- Depeche Mode's Martin Gore Gets Primal on 'The Third Chimpanzee'
- Depeche Mode: Ultra