Depeche Mode are a group that holds a fair bit of relative importance to me. I first discovered them in middle school, when my curiosity caused me to rake through my mom’s music collection. It’s also how I discovered a whole bunch of other 80s groups (The Cure, The Smiths, etc.) and may have even spearheaded my obsession with goth rock in high school. They were also the first real concert I ever attended, specifically their tour in promotion for their Playing the Angel album which was released when I was fourteen. It’s hard to believe that this concert was over ten years ago – I can still picture the majestic lighting and electric energy that reverberated from the group on stage, especially upbeat frontman Dave Gahan. It’s one of my warmest, most precious memories, and the performance of their single “Enjoy the Silence” at the show’s climax especially comes to me as particularly indelible.
“Enjoy the Silence” is easily Depeche Mode’s most commercially successful single. It is their first – and, to date, only – top ten single on the Hot 100, from their album Violator, which was also their most commercially successful album from the start. This also might be one of the singles that is most synonymous to what their sound had become at that point. Upon emerging onto the British new wave scene in the early 80s, their sound was much more like early singles “New Life” and “Just Can’t Get Enough” – upbeat and largely driven by high-tempo synth riffs. “New Life”, in particular, draws some pretty prominent Kraftwerk references. Over time, though, their sound had changed to containing more darker tones and subject matter than it had before. While mid-80s singles like “People Are People” and “Master and Servant” are still pretty danceable, the sonic stylings are just bigger and simply sound darker. Not to mention the matured subject matter of prejudice and BDSM relationships, respectively. This was the time when the band had become associated with the goth subculture of the 80s. The peak of their darkness and pessimism can probably be found in their entire Black Celebration album, which prioritizes a moody atmosphere and highly textured electronic sound over anything particularly upbeat and joyful. Eventually, though, they did return to more pop beats and rhythms, with songs like “Strangelove” and “Personal Jesus” possibly being the most defined singles of their career, blending their dark, moody atmosphere with seasoned songwriting and truly memorable melodies.
If you were to ask me today, though, “Enjoy the Silence” would be far from the song I would give a listen to if I ever found myself aching to listen to some Depeche Mode. “Strangelove” and “Personal Jesus”, and even two other Violator singles “World in My Eyes” and “Policy of Truth”, do the job fairly well on their own. It’s not even that I dislike the song at all – it’s hard to deny that bumping bass, that legendary synth riff, and Dave Gahan’s baritone vocals at their gloomiest. Honestly, it might just be the fact that I’ve heard it far more often on playlists and radio than any of their other songs and thus the allure of the track has been slowly shaved off over time, but it always kind of sounded like a “lesser” Depeche Mode single to me. It does the typical verse-chorus-verse-solo-chorus-solo structure that so many other songs do, so it often goes in one ear and out the other with hardly much ado. But “Personal Jesus” kind of does that as well, and it doesn’t even really have a chorus!
The lyrics aren’t even all that bad either. While a lot of Depeche Mode singles rely on intense, vivid imagery that heightens their sound (“Blasphemous Rumours” has this down to a tee), this one is highly stripped down thematically. The message is captured plainly and simply in its chorus: “All I ever wanted, all I ever needed / Is here in my arms / Words are very unnecessary / They can only do harm”. This could be explicitly interpreted as a love song of sorts, as a message from the speaker to his lover to remove the frivolous detail of a storybook romance and just enjoy the moment as it is. However, the verses reveal much more behind the sentiment, as the typically pessimistic nature of Depeche Mode’s lyrics are uncovered. The act of speaking here is treated like a violent act in the first verse (“Words like violence break the silence /… Painful to me; pierce right through me”) and then personified as a double-edged sword that giveth as it taketh away and should just be quickly pushed away (“Vows are spoken to be broken / Feelings are intense, words are trivial / …Words are meaningless and forgettable”). It’s evident that there’s much more pain enveloped in the speaker than he wants to let on, as if there are words left unspoken on the teetering state of his relationship and they would both rather leave those words unspoken than endure the inevitable. The signature riff that drives the song feels both romantic in its ability to lift the spirits, yet just discordant enough to suggest that something isn’t quite right.
I guess I can just mark it down to simple overplay that the effect of this song has weakened over time. The sound is on point, the lyrics are intense and fitting, and the recording as a whole is pretty well-crafted. At the very least, entirety of Violator doesn’t quite sound like anything else that was in high rotation in 1990. I guess the reason why it became so popular amongst a large number of people is its “lowest common denominator” factor – the sound is darkened enough to appeal to the subsection of people who enjoy moodier music, yet the sound isn’t quite as divisive as Black Celebration and the lyrical content is safe enough for radio play on the greatest amount of locations (unlike that of, say, “Master and Servant”, “Blasphemous Rumours”, and “Personal Jesus”). It’s a pretty awesome slice of moody synthpop that I’ve listened to a thousand times, and while I wouldn’t exactly object to the notion of listening to it a thousand more times, I’d much sooner point a budding Depecho Mode fan to the direction of something a bit more interesting.