Mar 192020
 

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

violator

You Want it Darker, the title of Leonard Cohen’s farewell album of 2016, might also have made an appropriate moniker for Depeche Mode’s 1990 release, Violator. The British synthpop group had grown steadily in popularity since signing to the independent Mute label in 1980, even to the point of selling out the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena (over 90,000 seats) in 1988. Yet it was when they took a more direct approach to the subjects of guilt, sin, sexual obsession, and inner torment on their seventh LP that they truly achieved a mass audience. This involved selling three million copies in the US and 15 million worldwide, in the glow of the indomitable hit singles “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy the Silence.”

Today marks 30 years since the release of Depeche Mode’s bleak, unit-shifting masterpiece, one of the most influential records of the ’90s, and one that made #342 on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of all Time in 2012. The breadth of artists who’ve covered its songs is testimony to the album’s impact. These artists span an unimaginable variety of genres on an international scale, and they provide ample justification for the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.

Doyens of the ’90s alt-rock scene, particularly, covered tracks from Violator, as is evident from even a cursory glance at The (Al)most Complete Depeche Mode Cover Versions website. No doubt, they were inspired by songwriter Martin Gore’s assimilation of bluesy guitar riffs into the band’s sound, achieved to full effect on “Personal Jesus.” But the alt-rock scene was also simpatico with Gore’s unflinching lyrical approach to psychological pain, which complemented frontman Dave Gahan’s heightened role as the tortured rock star forced to confront his personal demons, armed only with a powerful baritone.

Perhaps inevitably, goth bands also sought to reinterpret the songs on Violator, in added tribute to the icy electronic arrangements of keyboardist Alan Wilder and co-producer Flood. However, jazz, dance, folk, and even surf-rock performers soon joined in, who didn’t share their impulsion to kick against the mawkish power balladry of mainstream rock. They were soon followed by representatives of more left-field scenes: dark wave, gypsy electronica, Finnish love-metal.

To celebrate Violator Day, we’ve compiled the very best covers of every track from the album. Many of them don’t even feature a synthesizer. Some of them are sung from the perspective of a woman. And some are sung by people totally unaccustomed to wearing a leather vest onstage (or anywhere!). Yet all do justice to Depeche Mode’s unique expressions of human vulnerability and debasement. Sugar coating, there is none.

The Cure – World in my Eyes (Depeche Mode cover)

When Dave Gahan sings “Let me take you on a trip” in that deep and doomy voice of his, you can safely assume he’s not asking you to accompany him on a round-the-world cruise. On the opening track of Violator, he seems to have a rather more illicit journey in mind, an impression accentuated by the sinister bass line, the tense beat, and the sensual “oohs” on the outro. When Robert Smith sings it, on the other hand, you can be certain you’re heading someplace that’s just plain weird.

On Depeche Mode tribute album For the Masses (1998), fellow British indie band The Cure, with Smith at the helm, apply a psychedelic twist to “World in my Eyes” that draws on their tradition of making and reinterpreting LSD-inspired music within a gloomy post-punk framework. As on their Pornography album of 1984, their Doors cover of 1990 (“Hello, I Love You”), and their Hendrix cover of 1993 (“Purple Haze”), they simulate the experience of a druggy trip, but one that is especially disorientating, claustrophobic, violent, and for all that, exhilarating. They keep things synthy, but introduce droney guitar lines, a demented vocal, and a maelstrom of samples, echoes, and hard-edged beats. In doing so, they add yet another level of glorious derangement to their gothy discography, as a band who preceded the Mode in journeying from UK cult status to US breakthrough status with their eighth album, 1989’s Disintegration .

We’re still waiting on their cover of avowed Smith favorite “Personal Jesus,” though. Now that would be interesting.

Deftones – Sweetest Perfection (Depeche Mode cover)

Martin Gore was half-joking when he decided on the name Violator for the seventh Depeche Mode album, as he explained to the NME in February 1990: “We wanted to come up with the most extreme, ridiculously heavy-metal title that we could.” The irony of an electronic act appropriating the language of a metal act, however, was completely lost on many metalheads to whom they now appealed. This was no more the case than with “Sweetest Perfection,” a ballad sung by Gore himself, which might even be termed an “anti-power ballad,” so disconcertingly heavy is it on the subject of temptation and utterly devoid of anything at all life affirming. In a good way.

Californian alt-metal band Deftones bring the required sense of moral desolation to their 2010 cover of the track, having done the same thing (to fine effect) on “To Have and To Hold” in 1998. That earlier cover of a Depeche Mode deep cut from Music for the Masses (1987) proved not only that singer Chino Moreno was a true fan, but also that he could convincingly enact the longing for redemption so inherent in the lyrics: “And I feel diseased / I’m down on my knees / And I need forgiveness.”

He’s equally at home on “Sweetest Perfection,” as a frontman seemingly drawing upon his own band’s history of drug abuse and self-destructive behavior in the decade following the critical and commercial highpoint of their White Pony album of 2000. It feels real, therefore, when he sings of surrendering to harmful pleasures of the sexual/addictive kind: “The sweetest infection / Of body and mind / Sweetest injection / Of any kind.”

Moreno is even more convincing when his vocal, initially accompanied by shuffling drums and swampy guitar riffs, is overpowered by a barrage of savage guitar noise and distortion at the 2:50 mark. It’s a frightening enough sound for the listener to consider him truly lost. It’s affirmation, too, that Deftones are unlikely to add early Mode single “Just Can’t Get Enough” to their catalogue of covers anytime ever. Too darn jaunty.

Johnny Cash – Personal Jesus (Depeche Mode cover)

Gore and the boys really opened the floodgates when they released “Personal Jesus” as a single in August 1989, almost seven months before Violator’s release . Established fans could tell straightaway that their band was on the verge of crossover success, usually when they played it at parties to find more people than they ever thought possible dancing to it and yelling “who is this?!” Simply put, “Personal Jesus” was way more immediate than previous Depeche Mode numbers. It had a mesmerizing guitar riff and a stomping electro-rock groove, serving as vehicles for Gahan’s seemingly evangelical effusions (“reach out and touch faith”) which came with heavy-breathing effects for added sleaze and suggestiveness. Result: a rare US hit, a live favorite, and 130 acts over 30 years each trying to reinterpret the song in a unique way. At least one of these was a septuagenarian country-music legend from Arkansas.

It’s easy to view the hard rock/metal covers of “Personal Jesus” as the best when the likes of Marilyn Manson (2004), Sammy Hagar (2013) and Def Leppard (2018) have worked so hard to beef up its famous riff and pump it with varying levels of raunchiness. It’s also easy to be swayed by the twangy instrumental version by German surf-rock group Los Banditos (yes, really), found on the Further Beyond the Sea compilation of 2009. But, while the latter track exploits the song’s groove in a thrillingly unexpected Dick Dale kind of way, it would be foolish to sidestep Johnny Cash’s version of 2002. Here, after all, is a cover instilled with all manner of personal and religious gravitas, by which we can assume that the 70-year-old singer held no truck with the song’s sexual undertones (unlike, say, Michelle Kash on her recent version). The autobiographical grittiness wins it: the beat-up version of an iconic voice summoning up a lifetime of trying and failing to live according to the Gospel of Christ. This, against stark instrumentation in thrall to the bluesy guitar lines of Red Hot Chili Pepper’s John Frusciante.

The cover remains untouchable simply by encapsulating the whole ethos of Cash’s final album of his lifetime: the Rick Rubin-produced American IV: The Man Comes Around. The Man in Black makes “Personal Jesus” his own, in other words, by keeping it relevant to his extraordinary life, as he does with Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and so many other classic songs across that double record. He gives the track an unimagined emotional edge by relating it, on a literal level, to his contradictory past as both evangelist and hellraiser. This is a man who shared the stage with Rev. Billy Graham in the ’70s, and recorded gospel songs like “He’ll Be A Friend” and “When He Reached Down His Hand For Me” in the ’60s; this is also a man who was no stranger to bouts of drug and alcohol addiction. It’s no wonder, then, that he ended up calling the piece “probably the most evangelical gospel song I ever recorded.” I, for one, wouldn’t want to argue with that.

Roniit – Halo (Depeche Mode cover)

Depeche Mode revert to their favored theme of forbidden love on track 4 of Violator, the epic and moody “Halo.” It sees Gahan play a guy mixed up in a fatal relationship, who tells his complicit lover that she “wears” her guilt exactly as a true sinner would: “Like shackles on your feet / Like a halo in reverse.” The guy further reveals how they are both willing to risk ruin in exchange for the rapturous and transcendent nature of their affair: “When the walls come tumbling in / Though we may deserve it / It will be worth it.” In short, he provides the ingredients of a gothic love song, minus the blood and death.

With passion the key factor in “Halo,” there’s no call for subtlety when it comes to covering the song, particularly in view of its overtly poetic and, well, pretty hammy lyrics concerning a “famine in your heart” and “your lips of tragedy.” Californian singer Roniit, therefore, does the ultimate job of reinterpreting the song, with her mystical allure and dark-pop sensibilities. She brings a haunting and sensual atmosphere to her self-released version of 2015, in the spirit of her eponymous debut album of 2011 and her various EPs and singles including “Runaway” from 2014. She does this via exceedingly breathy vocals and soaring harmonies, offset by industrial instrumentation that is sparse and cold. She’d naturally expect you, in this case, to listen to the track in a darkened room for the full effect. It would be rude not to.

Ghost – Waiting for the Night (Depeche Mode cover)

There’s a soothing synth sound governing the Mode’s “Waiting for the Night,” perfectly in tune with how Gahan is seemingly looking forward to savoring the glow of the moon and enjoying a bit of nocturnal tranquility (aaah, lovely). And yet, on the inevitable downside, this is because he wants to isolate himself from the “stark reality” of daily existence, with the night perhaps signifying death (the ultimate escape) and the soft electronic bleepiness perhaps representing a faintly heard heart monitor in a hospital. Either this, or he’s on about sex again.

Whatever the artistic intent, theatrical Swedish band Ghost are responsible for the best cover of the song, from having found in Gore’s writing the raw materials of their specialist genre: doom metal. Members Papa Emeritus II (as was) and the Nameless Ghouls really go to town on the track, on the basis that the lyrics convey a sense of despair and, naturally, impending doom. They do so, also, because it offers some kind of religious significance (possibly connected to death), which is apparent in the lines: “And in the glow of the moon / I know my deliverance will come soon.” But crucially, they find here a slow tempo and ambient arrangement that they are able to submerge in the sludgy and low-tuned guitar sound that they inherited from Black Sabbath, all crunch and distortion.

The end product is to be found on the If You Have Ghosts EP of 2013, featuring notable Black Sabbath fan Dave Grohl as producer and collaborator. It sounds big, powerful and majestic. And, funnily enough, there’s some not-bad drumming on it.

Tori Amos – Enjoy the Silence (Depeche Mode cover)

A number 8 on the US Billboard Hot 100, a number 6 on the UK singles chart, and the subject of 229 cover versions, “Enjoy the Silence” is Depeche Mode’s not-so-secret weapon on Violator. This is partly down to the obvious effort Gore put into the lyrics, which concern a troubled man who clings to a moment of sexual and emotional intimacy in the hope that it will temporarily obliterate the senselessness of language. “Words are meaningless and forgettable,” he tells his young and female lover. “Can’t you understand? Oh, my little girl.” This is while listeners are seduced by the ambitious nature of the musical arrangement: the pulsating beat, the poignant choir chords, and the genius guitar riff (yep, another one).

Those understandably won over by the song include French singer-model Carla Brun and American roots band Love Canon, both of whom have covered it imaginatively in recent years, as an intimate ballad (2017) and a bluegrass stomper (2018), respectively. An honorable mention should also go to Italian band Lacuna Coil, who, with two lead singers in the mix, poured emotion and aggression into their goth-metal version of 2006. Yet top marks here go to Tori Amos, who tackled the song on her Strange Little Girls covers album of 2001. The feminist singer-songwriter deserves the distinction simply for having brought an unusual degree of tenderness to the song, by dramatically upending the dominant-male perspective.

Amos strips the track to voice, piano, and strings, slowing it down considerably and piling on the mournfulness. This, it turns out, is because she’s actually singing in character here. She’s an old Vegas showgirl named Isis, who has “a mothering quality in her” and wants to protect the younger showgirls she befriends from the “puppeteers” who lie and deceive. You can, of course, only know this from reading the liner notes to the album, but it’s not a requirement for appreciating the way Amos takes the song way beyond its original meaning. She brings a sense of female empathy to a previously fairly macho scenario. “Oh, my little girl.”

Terry Hoax – Policy of Truth (Depeche Mode cover)

If Gore didn’t originate a guitar riff for every track on Violator, he still collaborated on catchy keyboard riffs that could be readily adopted by badass axe-wielders. He and the boys injected “Policy of Truth” with such a riff, further blessing it with a tight melodic structure, a housey beat, and a killer hook, making it the obvious choice for third single. In consequence, German band Terry Hoax converted it into a straight-ahead rock number for their 1992 debut album, Freedom Circus. The five-piece from Hanover demonstrated that the track was ripe for loud guitars and thunderous drums, with singer Oliver Perau the perfect guy to belt out the dishonesty-is-the-best-policy advice in gruff and menacing fashion.

Terry House did such a good job on “Policy of Truth”, in fact, as to make it their most successful single (…in Germany). Added to this, their rendition still stands as the best cover of the song, outshining, it has to be said, the 1998 version by Californian alt-rockers Dishwalla. Better the upfront riffage of the former than the slow, grungy and fairly unengaging groove of the latter.

Hungry Lucy – Blue Dress (Depeche Mode cover)

With “Blue Dress,” Depeche Mode delivered a chilling electro-ballad that proved particularly appealing to industrial artists. This was not only because of its hard and abrasive synth sound, but also its provocative theme of sexual domination. “Put it on / And don’t say a word,” orders a quivery voiced Gore on lead vocal. “Put it on / And stand before my eyes.”

Ohio-based duo Hungry Lucy based practically their whole career upon a reinterpretation of the song for Mode tribute album Cover Me Vol 1 in 1998, a record on which they kept company with a range of industrial acts including Godheads and Lights of Euphoria. Keyboardist War-N Harrison and female vocalist Christa Belle, then operating as Fishtank No. 9, were faithful to the original in terms of the synth textures. But they also hit upon a distinctively haunting and atmospheric sound, inherent in Belle’s detached singing, as well as some barely audible spoken-word moments. It was this sound that gave rise to their debut album Apparitions in 2000, featuring songs called “Bound in Blood” and “Grave,” while earning them tags additional to “industrial,” like “gothic,” “darkwave,” and, curiously, “gypsy electronica.” Whatever they may be, though, they’re responsible for the best cover of “Blue Dress.”

Converge – Clean (Depeche Mode cover)

It was Jacob Bannon, of hardcore-metal band Converge, who found the inspiration in “Clean” for a really vital cover. For him, the whole Violator album evoked a “battle between human darkness and temptation,” these being the things that “relate to a lot of artists that are making heavy music.” The final, epic track particularly spoke to him, as a depiction of “somebody trying to get emotionally, physically and spiritually clean.”

Converge, without doubt, forged the ultimate cover of “Clean” for the Deeper the Wound split-CD of 2001, using it as a stepping stone to their breakthrough record the same year, Jane Doe. The Massachusetts band clearly connected with Gore’s lyrics about a character happy to be getting “clean” (from drug addiction, from alcohol abuse, from whatever unsavory pastime you care to imagine), but just “sometimes.” In unison, they made only minor adjustments to the original version’s eerie electronics, rumbling bass line and ominous groove. What they added wholesale was a monumental drum sound, an evil-sounding vocal, and the kind of terrifying guitar riff that screeches and howls into the night.

Overall, then, there’s very little to convince you that the person in the song is, in fact, all that clean. This attests to the Violator cover being as sinister and disturbing as a Violator cover can get. The extreme nature of the track also makes for a grand finale to this list of reinterpretations, which should, in turn, be enough to satisfy most people’s appetite for darkness. Who could possibly want it darker?

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  2 Responses to “Full Albums: Depeche Mode’s ‘Violator’”

Comments (2)
  1. Cuibul, the polish band, did my favourite policy of truth cover. It is not available easily, here it is a live version, not as good as the studio one.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZi3gs9xV5I

  2. Thanks mycroft! That’s a great, soulful version. Liking all the brass on there!

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