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

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It’s 1989. In the United Kingdom the newspapers began to show some mysterious advertisements: inside there was written just “Your own personal Jesus” and a telephone number. Calling that number, you could hear a short excerpt from the upcoming Depeche Mode single. The one that would anticipate Violator, their best-selling album ever. The video of Personal Jesus will be the one that inaugurates Depeche Mode’s new rock attitude, setting up the new way to dominate the scene in the 90s.

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

It will be Depeche Mode’s first color video among those directed by Anton Corbijn. That decisive guitar riff, combined with the aggressive rhythms, were something completely different from what the band produced so far and hit the audience instantly. Many are the reasons of that success, but surely one of those that determined the longevity of the song was in 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 only what you see, what you touch with your hands matters, everybody is able to identify his own personal Jesus and build his own faith around him.

The first albums produced by Depeche Mode in the 90s represent the peak of their materialistic imaginary. Even the other big single extracted from Violator, Enjoy 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 is perceived by our senses. Depeche Mode have never advocated any religious message, any aspiration 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 for all their faith in something beyond the physical world. The imagery of Depeche Mode is not made just of pure materialism. But if so, why then is that hymn so clear and clean, and those verses so unmistakable in interpretation?

Reach out and touch faith

The inspiration for that song and that 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 rockstar setting, therefore, their intention is to present themselves as those who can give faith, care, answers to who needs 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 always crossed the earthly world, and in the same way 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 sent by them in the early 90s, the physical side of it takes over temporarily and they ended up singing hymns to the world they live in. Something that, however, will soon change: after the overdose that will bring Dave Gahan on the brink of death, Depeche Mode will release Ultra, the album that starts their second life, and from that moment on there will never be again a complete, total abandonment, to the physical world. Love will become, if possible, an even more salvific ideal, a firm point that prevents us to fall into perdition. And Depeche Mode will come 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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