When I wrote about Depeche Mode‘s previous album Violator a few weeks ago, I closed the review by saying the only thing to do was to move onto Songs of Faith and Devotion. Finishing with Violator would feel as though you were leaving a job half-done, so here’s the second half of that review.
But things are very different this time around. Violator, from its very first notes, is characterised by analogue warmth. There’s none of that here – right from the start of I Feel You, you’re both pulled in and alienated by noisy grungy feedback, and whereas the guitars were kept to a minimum previously, they’re in full force here.
I Feel You is a fantastic return, a grimey love song with gospel backing vocals. It also reveals the curious contradiction of the title – there’s plenty of Faith and Devotion here, but Prejudice and Sex might have been more accurate. Second track Walking in My Shoes is perhaps closer to the album title, and is a less guitar-driven piece. Compare this to the Depeche Mode of just five years ago, and you might be a little confused by what you hear, but Walking in My Shoes is definitely among their finest moments.
The heavily gospel-influenced third track and also third single Condemnation follows, thoroughly justifying the Faith in the album title. They had never released anything quite like this before, and that alone should be reason enough to like it. Mercy in You is probably closer to what you might expect from Depeche Mode, although that might only be true with the benefit of hindsight.
For the first time in a couple of albums, Songs of Faith and Devotion does prove to have its weaker moments. Martin L. Gore turns up to deliver an occasional vocal on Judas, and while there’s really nothing particularly wrong with the song, it’s a little unforgettable alongside its more energetic and unusual neighbours.
The second half of the album opens with the exceptional fourth single In Your Room, although in slightly different form to the wonderfully powerful version which would become a single a year or so later. Unquestionably another of Depeche Mode‘s finest songs, with Dave Gahan at his grungy best.
Get Right with Me is another slightly weaker moment. It’s a gospel song in the style of Condemnation, but doesn’t quite grab you in the same way that it’s predecessor did. It’s followed by Interlude No. 4, an excerpt from Brian Eno‘s remix of I Feel You (numbers 1-3 were on previous albums) before proceedings are kicked back into shape with the brilliant Rush.
Songs of Faith and Devotion is an unforgiving album – the first time you listen, you might well find you hate it, but with time it will be songs like Rush that stick in your head. It’s a rock piece, but it hides a little bit of 1980s Depeche Mode in the grimey post-chorus melody, and it turns out to be an exceptionally good song.
One Caress sees Martin L. Gore delivering his own vocals again, this time with the accompaniment of a string quartet. It’s improbable, both for Depeche Mode and for this album, but it’s truly brilliant. Gore’s quivering vocal delivery fits the song perfectly, and it’s a perfect interlude between all the rock, and yet somehow it fits extremely well too.
Finally, it’s time for the album closer, an enormous piece entitled Higher Love. It’s huge, anthemic, and entirely brilliant, and finishes the album off in entirely appropriate style. Unlike Violator I don’t find myself desperately grabbing at the next album, but even so, it’s an exceptional closing track for a great album.
It was this album which pretty much broke the Basildon four-piece, with Gahan coming disturbingly close to death, and the others in a deep turmoil which culminated with Alan Wilder‘s decision to leave the band and concentrate on his Recoil project instead. Their recovery and return four years later with the disturbed Ultra was a welcome relief – the trajectory of young pop stars working their way up to rock idols, mapped out from Speak and Spell through to Songs of Faith and Devotion, would have been an extremely disturbing epitaph. But they did come back, this wasn’t the end, and fortunately it’s possible to enjoy it as one of their darkest hours.
As with Violator, the double disc version is the essential one to track down if you can, but otherwise go for the 2013 remastered version, still widely available.