Rhino // 1993 // 48 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // February 1st, 2007
"I think something broke in me during the making of that [album]." -- Alan Wilder
Back in the '80s, having a band play nothing but synthesizers was considered cool. Okay, stop laughing. It's true. Synthesizers were cool. Sort of like that recorded spiel in 1960s Disneyland's Home of the Future that used to proudly say that everything in the house was made of plastic. We used to like that sort of thing -- the crisp, clean, streamlined feel of plastic or computer generated art.
As the 1990s arrived, the well-coiffed New Wave bands of the previous decade, so proud of their motionless hairdos and their emotionless music, dropped out of sight. In their place was a new kind of studio rat, one who used the new technology to give a rough, cobbled-together feel to music. It was angry, it was industrial, and it was epitomized by bands like Nine Inch Nails and Pop Will Eat Itself.
Longtime synthesizer stalwarts Depeche Mode made their first foray into this new sort of music in 1989. The song was called "Personal Jesus," and it featured...wait for it...a guitar. But "Personal Jesus" was even more of a turning point for the band. It had a twangy, oddly country-music sound, implying that the band was expanding its musical vocabulary. While sexual obsession was a common theme throughout Martin Gore's songwriting, this new single mixed it with religious longing.
While the rest of the Violator album on which "Personal Jesus" would appear six months later did not really follow up on this new experiment, it was already clear that something was changing in Depeche Mode. Singer David Gahan started wearing leather and affected a "rock and roll" attitude. (He was also destroying himself with drugs.) Alan Wilder learned to play the drums. Martin Gore penned songs with a gospel flavor ("Get Right With Me"), and borrowed musical ideas from grunge and industrial ("I Feel You").
The band's 1993 album Songs of Faith and Devotion has always been my favorite. Thematically, it is their most cohesive, with songs deftly overlapping desire and spirituality. Musically, the layers of noise reveal something new the more you listen. Dave Gahan is more energetic, almost aggressive throughout the album, tearing himself up emotionally as if he has to fight against the music itself. The band seems to be stepping forward, out from behind their keyboards, and really engaging themselves with their audience. (Indeed, when I saw them live on this tour, it was nice to see them actually do more than standing in place, shifting their weight periodically while they tap out notes. It was a hell of a show.)
Consider a song like "Higher Love," in which pain and ecstasy melt into one another: "I can taste more than feel/This burning inside me is so real/I can almost lay my hands upon/The warm soul that lingers on." Over the course of the album's ten songs, we hear unrepentant sinners, failed victims of desire begging forgiveness, and it is never entirely clear to whom they are praying: a lover? God? The Devil? The Void? (Only the B-side "My Joy" actually mentions God.) Some songs speak from the perspective of the one to whom the prayers are directed. Martin Gore begs his "Judas" to "suffer some misery/If you want my love." Gahan demands, like a Pentecostal preacher, "Get Right With Me."
Although the album has aged well, let it never be said that the Depeche Mode marketing department would ever miss a chance to repackage material to get more money out of the fans. So Songs of Faith and Devotion appears once again, this time in a remastered edition with a bonus DVD. While the UK gets a CD/SACD hybrid version of the album, the US version is a standard CD. Even with headphones on, I could detect no discernable differences between the new CD and my original copy of the album. Of course, the recording technology has not changed as much as, say, it has since Depeche Mode's first few albums, so there probably isn't much to tinker with. Still, if you already own the original CD, you won't get much out of the upgrade.
The prize for fans of the band is clearly the DVD. (It is also obviously the reason why I am telling you all about this at DVD Verdict.) The entire album has been remixed in Dolby 5.1, DTS 5.1, and PCM Stereo. The new mix is surprisingly disappointing. Most of the songs do not take real advantage of the expanded soundscape, reserving the rear channels for minor effects. The only real standouts among the remixed tracks are "Rush," which plays inventively with call-and-answer vocals bouncing around the speakers, and "One Caress," which spreads out the string section through the room. Otherwise, the new versions tend to lack the organic quality, the surprising conjunctions of analog and digital sounds, that I like about the original CD. Many of the tracks sound hollow, their effects separated just for the sake of making this a 5.1 mix. In short, I cannot see myself listening to this version much. Still, I won't be listening to the 5.1 mix much anyway, because I can only play it in my DVD player. Can't use it in my car or my MP3 player. And the DVD version includes no visuals or onscreen lyrics to go with the audio.
The DVD also includes a new half-hour documentary featuring band members and colleagues discussing the recording session and the subsequent -- and apparently harrowing -- world tour. Everybody keeps talking about how hard the record was to make; how much the band argued and fought; how bad the working process was. Judging from the way they describe it, the band jettisoned the usual pre-production discussions (long development, band members working separately, lots of polish) and launched right into an intensive, live-in recording situation. They tried jamming instead of programming. While they don't seem happy about it, the results clearly paid off: the music has the frayed edges it needs. Listen to Gahan reach desperately for the ragged limit of his voice on "Condemnation." If the band has always profited from suffering (check my review of the deluxe release of their 1982 album A Broken Frame), then the suffering they complain about on this documentary has clearly brought them to their creative peak.
Still, the DVD is rather thin on bonus features. Apart from the documentary and the 5.1 remix, you get a handful of studio remixes of the album's singles (all of which previously appeared on 12-inch club records or CD singles). You also get one B-side ("My Joy") and a remix of "Death's Door" (the original appeared on the soundtrack for Wim Wender's Until the End of the World -- but not on this DVD at all). The music videos shown briefly in the documentary are not included. Nor is any live material. Depeche Mode did release a lackluster live album (unimaginatively titled Songs of Faith and Devotion Live) that duplicated the tracks on the studio version. I hope they don't intend to release that as a deluxe package separately.
While the band never fully recovered from the experience of Songs of Faith and Devotion -- Gahan fell apart from drug use and attempted suicide, Alan Wilder gave in to the pressure and quit the band, and later albums have seemed to coast on the creative breakthroughs made here -- the strength of the album speaks for itself. If only the bonus features made this worth rushing out for.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 48 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Remastered Version of Original Album (CD only)
* Remastered and Remixed Version of Album (DVD only)
* Featurette (DVD only)
* Remixes (DVD only)
* Official Site