They’ve been around for years, Depeche Mode and their synthesizers, and surely by now everyone who knows about them has come to some conclusion. For some, they’re pop kings; for others, they’re too vapid, too mechanized, or too pompous.

But on Violator, anyway, their music is more varied than catchy pop needs to be. ”World in My Eyes,” the opening track, begins with music that sounds like some ungainly cartoon animal dancing. The second song, ”Sweetest Reflection,” starts low, then quickly adds something high and eerie, like the keening of a thousand tiny neon gnats.

None of these distinctive and curious effects (there must be dozens of them) interferes with the easy flow of the music. Sometimes, though, they do cast shadows, the significance of which can be hard to figure out. These shadows in effect hint at unspecified meanings, in a mannered way that might well be called pompous — until one song, ”Halo,” opens a window on what the band might really be about. ”You wear guilt like shackles on your feet, like a halo in reverse,” the lyrics say, while the music dances darkly.

This emotional sickness — ”a famine in your heart” — is captured by harmonies that float over the music as if they were the disturbing odor of slowly rotting fruit. Even ”Waiting for the Night,” on its surface a song about tranquillity, drifts on a sea of unease. There’s a worm eating at Depeche Mode’s gut. Maybe at heart they’re not wholly pop. B-

  • Music