After their debut album Violent Femmes, they released Hallowed Ground, which moved the group towards a country music sound and introduced spiritual themes. Their third album, The Blind Leading the Naked, produced by fellow Milwaukee native Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads, was more mainstream and pop-oriented, resulting in a minor hit with "Children of the Revolution," originally by T. Rex. The group disbanded, with Gano releasing an album in 1987, the result of a gospel side project Mercy Seat. Ritchie also released several solo LPs. The group came back together in late 1988, releasing 3, a return to the band's earlier, stripped-down sound. Why Do Birds Sing? was released in 1991 after the band signed to Reprise and featured another minor hit, "American Music," which became a concert staple.
In 1993, DeLorenzo departed the group to act and make solo records. Guy Hoffman, formerly of the Oil Tasters and BoDeans, was brought in to tour what was to become one of their biggest-selling records, the Add It Up (1981-1993) collection. Over the next nine years, the Femmes, with Hoffman, recorded five full-length CDs and a handful of one-offs for motion picture soundtracks, such as "I Swear It (I Can Change)" from the South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut soundtrack, and other compilation projects. The first full studio album with Hoffman on drums, New Times (Elektra Records), was released in 1994. The record featured some of Gano's best songwriting, and the band scored another minor hit with the song "Breaking Up." Rock!!!!! (Mushroom Records) was released in 1995 in Australia only, though it has since become available in the United States.
Viva Wisconsin, a live album, was released in the United States in 1999 on the independent label Beyond, and was followed by Freak Magnet in 2000. Something's Wrong (2001), an album of unreleased studio tracks, covers, demos, and acoustic live performances was released as an MP3-only album through eMusic. In 2002, Rhino Records repackaged the Femmes' debut 1983 album along with demos and live tracks to coincide with a 20th anniversary reissue. DeLorenzo asked to rejoin for what was to be a farewell tour, thus reinstating the original lineup.
2005 saw the release of two collections of past work – a CD called Permanent Record: The Very Best of Violent Femmes on Slash/Rhino and a DVD, Permanent Record - Live & Otherwise from Rhino, which showcases a concert performance from 1991, along with many of the group's videos. The CD is the first record that recognizes all four musicians and their contributions on the same disc.
After touring in promotion of Freak Magnet, primary songwriter Gano decided that they would no longer make new music, but the band would continue to play shows when booked. On New Year's Eve of 2005, and for one show in January 2006, all four Violent Femmes members played together.
In 2007, Gano surprised many long-time fans by selling advertising rights for the classic "Blister in the Sun" to Wendy's Hamburgers.
Although nearly all of the band's songs, including Blister in the Sun, credit Gano as the sole songwriter, Ritchie responded to the use of the song in the commercial by saying:
"For the fans who rightfully are complaining about the Wendy's burger advertisement featuring Blister in the Sun, Gordon Gano is the publisher of the song and Warners is the record company. When they agree to use it there's nothing the rest of the band can do about it, because we don't own the song or the recording. That's showbiz. Therefore when you see dubious or in this case disgusting uses of our music you can thank the greed, insensitivity and poor taste of Gordon Gano, it is his karma that he lost his songwriting ability many years ago, probably due to his own lack of self-respect as his willingness to prostitute our songs demonstrates. Neither Gordon (vegetarian) nor me (gourmet) eat garbage like Wendy's burgers. I can't endorse them because I disagree with corporate food on culinary, political, health, economic and environmental grounds. However, I see my life's work trivialized at the hands of my business partner over and over again, although I have raised my objections numerous times. As disgusted as you are I am more so."
Ritchie filed a lawsuit against Gano in August 2007, seeking half ownership of the Femmes' music and access to royalty accounting. Many speculated this would lead to the band's breakup. However, on June 17, 2008 the band released a cover of "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley who had previously covered "Gone Daddy Gone".