Violator Label: Rhino/Sire
Full disclosure: when I was in college, writing for the “Ohio University Post,” I panned Violator when it was released. “World in My Eyes” sounds like Speak & Spell-era Depeche, and mimicking Vince Clarke’s sound this late in their career was embarrassing, I said. “Blue Dress,” “New Dress,” “Dressed in Black,” “Stripped,” blah blah blah. “Policy of Truth” will clearly be a single, but it’ll be their weakest single in years. I was not kind, to say the least.
Has time, maturity and a broader knowledge base changed that opinion any? Well, somewhat, but for my money Violator is still no Black Celebration. “World in My Eyes” was clearly going for a Kraftwerk thing, something that was lost on me at the time. Violator’s first four tracks, plus “Enjoy the Silence,” are five of the best songs in Depeche Mode’s catalog, with “Silence” still standing as the group’s finest hour. But five tracks do not an album make, unless, of course, you’re Rush or Yes. Nonetheless, Violator gets four stars for its massive leaps forward sonically, and for sending Depeche Mode into the stratosphere commercially. And, if nothing else, it’s certainly better than Music for the Masses; it is also, sadly, better than everything they’ve released since Violator. The band’s peak, in the most literal sense.
Before we get to the extras, let’s break down some of the album’s finer points. Martin Gore frequently feared that Depeche’s musical approach was getting too “rocky,” and yet one of Violator’s weirdest, darkest, and best moments is “The Sweetest Perfection,” the most rockin’ thing Depeche had done up to that point. (“I Feel You” would steal the crown from “Sweetest” three years later.) The drum track, from the press rolls in the intro to the pounding, flanged snare at the end, sounded downright human. And then there’s “Halo,” the Hit Single That Got Away. “World in My Eyes” is a great, great song, but had they followed “Policy of Truth” with “Halo,” Depeche Mode would have two Top Ten singles in the US, not one (“Enjoy the Silence” is the band’s sole Top Tenner). Dark, catchy and sporting another thunderous rhythm section, “Halo” would have been one of those Pop/Modern Rock/Dance crossover smashes, but it never had the chance. That there were no remixes of the song (until Goldfrapp moped it to death in 2004) is downright criminal.
The bonus DVD is, admittedly, a mixed bag. The good news is the short film, “Depeche Mode: 1989-1990 (If You Wanna Use Guitars, Use Guitars),” is fantastic, featuring interviews with anyone and everyone that worked on Violator. They even brought the estranged Alan Wilder back for a chat (he left the band in 1995 citing, according to Wikipedia, “unsatisfactory internal working conditions”), though he has not aged nearly as well as the rest of the band. Still, at least he’s not sporting a hilarious on-the-edge-of-puberty mustache like singer Dave Gahan. (Shave it, Dave. Now.) You get to hear the story of how “Enjoy the Silence” began as a ballad, but Wilder and producer Flood shooed the other members away for a weekend and restructured it as a dance track, much to everyone’s amazement. Cool, cool stuff.
Which brings us to the “extra tracks.” DVD-only bonus tracks are a consumer’s worst nightmare, on a number of levels. Sure, if, IF, they have some sweet Surround Sound setup in order to blast these Violator B-sides (the entire album has been remixed in 5.1 Surround Sound for the DVD as well), then they’ll sound fantastic. But what if they don’t have a setup like that? It won’t make a lick of difference what kind of mix treatment the songs received when you play them through the speakers in your television. Also, what if the consumer would like to rip these B-sides into iTunes? No can do, buddy. They’re DVD-only. Ugh. The label will probably say that they put the tracks on the DVD for the sake of space, since the DVD can hold hours of material, while the CD holds a mere 80 minutes. If this is indeed the case, then it begs the question: for all of the space available on the DVD, why include only five extra tracks? Surely it wouldn’t have killed them to include a couple of remixes from each of the album’s four singles, would it? Food for thought when planning the next batch of reissues, Rhino.
Violator was one of those right-place-right-time moments for Depeche Mode, and it is that very fortunate timing that, perhaps, causes people to overrate the album somewhat. When it’s good, it’s really, really good. But they have made at least two albums (Black Celebration, Some Great Reward) that are better.