Depeche Mode, Personal Jesus: beyond the meaning of the lyrics

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It’s 1989. In the United Kingdom, mysterious advertisements start appearing in the national newspapers: “Your own personal Jesus” and a telephone number. If you called the number, you would hear a short excerpt from the upcoming Depeche Mode single that would signal the launch of Violator, their best-selling album ever. The video of Personal Jesus would go on to be the one that inaugurated Depeche Mode’s new rock attitude, paving the way for their domination of the scene in the 90s.

Your own personal Jesus
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who cares

It would be Depeche Mode’s first colour video, directed by Anton Corbijn. The decisive guitar riff, combined with the aggressive rhythms, were something completely different from what the band had produced to that point, and it was an instant hit with audiences. There were many reasons for its success, but one of the key elements that determined the longevity of the song was the lyrics: a provocative message, that you can easily interpret as a hymn to modern materialism, reusable as an argument against traditional religions. In a world where the only things that matter are those which you can see or touch with your hands, everybody is able to identify their own personal Jesus and build their own faith around him.

The first albums produced by Depeche Mode in the 90s represented the peak of their materialistic imagery. Even the other big single from ViolatorEnjoy the Silence, says clearly that “All I ever wanted, all that I never needed, is here, in my hands”, suggesting that there is nothing beyond what our senses perceive. Depeche Mode have never advocated any religious message or any connections to God – this is undeniable. Yet they always had a God, and they talked about Him many times, from the first album to the last, being careful to communicate that yes, something exists beyond the world that we perceive, and it is something worth fighting and suffering for: love. In their previous album, Music for the Masses, there was a song, Sacred, which confessed in a clear and definitive way what their concept of faith was: “I’m a firm believer / And a warm receiver / This is religion / There’s no doubt / I’m one of the devout.”

Love is the guiding light of Depeche Mode, and this clarifies once and for all that their faith in something beyond the physical world. Their imagery is not made just of pure materialism. But if this is the case, why then is this hymn so clear and clean, and the verses so unmistakable in their interpretation?

Reach out and touch faith

The inspiration for the song and the lyrics comes from the book Elvis and Me, written by Elvis Presley’s ex-wife. As Martin Gore explained:

“It’s a song about being a Jesus for somebody else, someone to give you hope and care. It’s about how Elvis Presley was her man and her mentor and how often that happens in love relationships; how everybody’s heart is like a god in some way”

In Depeche Mode’s new rock-star setting, therefore, their intention was to present themselves as those who could give faith, care, answers to those who need something to believe in“Feeling unknown / And you’re all alone / Flesh and bone / By the telephone / Lift up the receiver / I’ll make you a believer.”

Take second best
Put me to the test
Things on your chest
You need to confess
I will deliver
You know I’m a forgiver

This personal concept of faith, according to Depeche Mode, has always gone beyond the tangible, and love has been always in close contact with sex (another recurring topic in Depeche’s lyrics). In Personal Jesus, and more generally in the messages they put out through their music in the early 90s, the physical side took over temporarily, and they ended up singing hymns to the world they lived in. This all changed soon after, however, following the overdose that took Dave Gahan to the brink of death. Depeche Mode then released Ultra, the album that began their second life. From that moment, there would never be again a complete, total abandonment, of the physical world. Love would become, if such a thing was possible, an even more salvific ideal; a firm point that prevents us from succumbing to perdition. And Depeche Mode would move a bit closer to God.

Years later, in Playing The Angel, the song Precious says:

Precious and fragile things
Need special handling
My God what have we done to You?

Perhaps, in the end, salvation from the world has arrived.

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