By the late 1980s, Depeche Mode had moved past the light synth-pop of their early period. By incorporating darker industrial sounds and a more goth-centric image, the group were able to take on weightier topics like obsession, depression, and jealousy while being taken seriously as more than just a goofy pop band who sang ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’.
On the 1990 album Violator, Depeche Mode were able to bridge the synth-heavy 1980s with the darker sensibilities of the ‘90s. It might be difficult to find a bridge between Thompson Twins and Nine Inch Nails, but Depeche Mode proved to be the essential link between the vibrant past and the more morose future. Leading the charge was ‘Personal Jesus’, the moody single that mixed bluesy slide guitar, dance-ready rhythms, and Dave Gahan’s signature baritone growl.
Written by guitarist and primary songwriter Martin Gore, ‘Personal Jesus’ is one of the only songs that makes equal sense being covered by Johnny Cash as it does being covered by Marilyn Manson. When it came to the track’s inspiration, Gore cited one of Cash’s contemporaries, Elvis Presley, as the launching point for the song’s lyrics.
Specifically, it was Priscilla Presley’s 1985 biography Elvis and Me that caused Gore to contemplate ownership and control in a relationship. “It’s a song about being a Jesus for somebody else, someone to give you hope and care,” Gore told SPIN in 1990. “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, and that’s not a very balanced view of someone, is it?”.
It might not have been Elvis himself, but old-school rockabilly played a major role in the song’s arrangement as well. For one of the first times, Gore focused on bringing ‘Personal Jesus’ to life through guitar instead of keyboard. As such, he came up with both the central guitar figure and the signature slide guitar riff that were completely different from the band’s past material. Gore would subsequently incorporate guitars in a much greater fashion for the arrangements throughout Violator.