'Songs Of Faith And Devotion' was released exactly twenty years ago this week. In 1993, the quartet of Dave Gahan, Martin Gore, Andrew Fletcher and Alan Wilder - regarded as the 'classic' Depeche Mode line-up - was a band vastly changed from their synth-pop roots. 'Violator', the 1990 album that preceded 'Songs Of Faith And Devotion', was the conclusion of a journey that took the band from Basildon boyband pop through various plunges into ever darker places, culminating in the clever, sleek stadium-friendly electronic structures of 'Violator'; girls in my school duly covered their folders and workbooks with photos of the clean-cut looking lads with leather jackets and tidy haircuts.
The Depeche Mode of 1993 arrived in the noisiest of fashions with the first single to be lifted from 'Songs Of Faith And Devotion', 'I Feel You'. From the first moments of that track it was clear that Depeche Mode wanted to put their past behind them, the track opening with seven seconds of howling feedback that some journalists compared to the soundtrack to David Lynch's Eraserhead, before a dirty blues riff from Martin Gore and crashing, processed live drums kicked in; organ grooves, gospel ascendancy and stirring, rousing vocals from Dave Gahan made it clear that this was a Depeche Mode who wanted to be taken very seriously indeed by the rock press.
And to go with that harder sound, with any trace of 'pure' electronics buried almost immeasurably deep beneath a murky rock cacophony, came a new image for Dave Gahan. In the downtime between 'Violator' and 'Songs Of Faith And Devotion', Dave Gahan was suddenly re-cast as the quintessential rock frontman - long hair, a body literally covered in tattoos, and all the nihilistic excesses and tendencies we have come to associate with rock royalty. The change of image somehow gave credence to Depeche Mode's new, more organic sound but it came with a dose of ballsy hyperbole from Gahan during the promotion of the album and its tour, the singer even going so far as to risibly claim that Depeche Mode were responsible for the development of grunge; his growing chemical dependencies would also lead to painfully slow progress at the recording sessions in Madrid and Hamburg, much to the frustration of the rest of the band.
Image reboot to one side, the other big change was Martin Gore's lyric writing. With songs like 'Condemnation' and 'Walking In My Shoes', Gore was suddenly striving for a sort of religious salvation, almost as if he was in need of redemption for some vast life of sin. Previous albums had contained songs that referenced spirituality, but here was a whole album neatly split between the album title's themes of faith and devotion. 'Condemnation', with its world weary imagery of a man accepting his punishment with bitter grace was the album's towering moment, full of hand-wringing angst, regret and disappointment. Gahan had never sounded like he does on 'Condemnation' before; his voice has a gravelly, almost slurred quality that adds to the wretchedness of the man on trial here, the slow motion wonky piano, drums and humming in the music giving this a queasy sense of muted euphoria. The combination of Alan Wilder's studio expertise and Gahan's vocal development on 'Songs Of Faith And Devotion' were the crucial elements required to execute Gore's lyrical themes; Wilder, in conjunction with the album's producer Flood, gave Gore's songs a grainy atmosphere that was more or less the polar opposite of the far cleaner sound of 'Violator'. Grinding bass, skeketal, creeping synths, an unlikely funk guitar on 'Mercy In You', uillean pipes on 'Judas', a string orchestra on the haunting 'One Caress', scratched distorted hip-hop breaks on the affirming gospel of 'Get Right With Me', the psychedelic uplift of 'Higher Love' - all of this was virgin territory for Depeche Mode, setting 'Songs Of Faith And Devotion' a world apart from anything else they'd done. Only the electro-rock angst of 'Rush' seemed remotely related to the earlier Mode sound.
'Songs Of Faith And Devotion' is one of several pivotal albums in Depeche Mode's back catalogue, not least because it would be the catalyst for a massive change in the band. The accompanying fourteen-month global tour would see Andrew Fletcher quit the band temporarily through stress and Gore suffering from seizures brought on, in his words, by extreme exhaustion. Alan Wilder quit the band completely when the tour was over to focus on his Recoil side-project leaving a major studio gap in the band that subsequent albums have never quite filled. As for Gahan, the excesses of rock star life caught up with him savagely, the singer overdosing from a cocktail of hard drugs and actually dying for a brief few seconds, narrowly avoiding becoming another rock star fatality. That the band are still together, and back producing some of their strongest songs yet, remains something of a surprise after the career pinnacle that was 'Songs Of Faith And Devotion' and the ensuing strain it caused - but thankfully they are.
Words by Mat Smith
'Songs Of Faith And Devotion' was released in the UK in March 1993.