Songs of Faith and Devotion Label: Sire/Rhino/Mute/Reprise
It’s never easy to follow up the biggest selling album of your career. Unfortunately, that’s what Depeche Mode had to do when they entered the studio to record Songs of Faith and Devotion.
After releasing Violator in 1990, thereby laying waste to their electro-pop peers from the ‘80s and proving that they had the tunes and the wherewithal to take over the charts, Dave Gahan, Martin Gore, Alan Wilder, and Andrew Fletcher knew that the ears of the world – and, more specifically, those of music critics – would be carefully scrutinizing whatever they released next. Even more importantly, the grunge movement was at the height of its popularity, and Gahan, who’d been living in L.A. and hanging out with bands like Jane’s Addiction, was convinced that the members of Depeche Mode should step up their game, set aside some of their keyboards, and actually learn to play some proper instruments for a change.
Wow, talk about an idea that could have been potentially disastrous.
As it happens, though, the music on Songs of Faith and Devotion doesn’t really sound all that different from any other Depeche Mode album, overall…although you wouldn’t guess that from the nasty screech of feedback that opens the proceedings. “I Feel You” is definitely more organic – those are real drums you hear pounding – and arguably the most rock-oriented song the band had recorded to date. Although the next song, “Walking in My Shoes,” could’ve easily fit onto Violator, it’s not a sign of the band getting back into their normal groove; it’s followed by “Condemnation,” which finds Gahan getting his gospel on (something he revisits on “Get Right with Me”), then by “Mercy in You,” which has some surprisingly funky guitar work. “Judas” is a standard Martin Gore spotlight tune, while “In Your Room” again harkens back to Violator; “Higher Love” starts off doing so as well, but it rises above the comparison with particularly nice harmonies between Gahan and Gore.
The production on the album, handled by Flood (who’d just come off helping U2 successfully recreate themselves on Achtung Baby) helps keeps the band sounding like themselves. In addition to his work on “I Feel You,” his addition of a harder-edged sound on “Rush” – not unlike what he’d helped Trent Reznor achieve on Pretty Hate Machine – is what keeps Depeche Mode sounding relevant, making for a song strong enough to have fit comfortably on Black Celebration. (Actually, “One Caress” has a Black Celebration feel, too, but it fails because Gore sounds like he’s consciously trying too hard to achieve it.)
As with the previous Rhino reissues of the DM back catalog, the primary complaint remains the same: that the bonus tracks for the album appear solely on the DVD, thereby making them utterly inaccessible should you, say, actually want to listen to them without the benefit of a DVD player. Also remaining consistent, however, is the quality of the documentary on the recording and subsequent promotion of the album, which helps ease the bonus-track sting. Covering the years 1991–1994, the doc bears an unwieldy parenthetic subtitle (“We were going to live together, record together, and it was going to be wonderful”), but as with its predecessors, it’s a fascinating, illuminating look at the Songs of Faith and Devotion era…and what a generally awful experience it was for the band. It was bad enough, in fact, that by the time the band had finished touring behind the record, Andrew Fletcher had had to be temporarily replaced to deal with a nasty case of clinical depression.
Shame about Fletch…but the album’s still pretty damned good.