Classic synth-pop duo serve up a new helping…
Some things are just too predictable, the reaction of cynicism from some quarters that followed Soft Cells’ full return to our world after the ‘one night only’ O2 extravaganza certainly fell into that category.
The reality is that Soft Cell, as a vehicle for the talents contained within, is just too good to leave behind.
Thinking back to that O2 gig, the only aspect that jarred with my romanticised image of their outsider status was the choice of venue, beyond that the same heart, as full of contradictions as ever, was beating as loudly as it did back in those halcyon days. That the gig levitated joyously above the incongruity of the so un–Soft Cell-like venue echoes another rare quality they possess: the ability to sustain having had mega hits while still connecting with those who want to go much deeper than finding a soundtrack for an 80s club night.
How many artists manage to successfully walk the line between pop and cult like Soft Cell?
A complex band, full of non-judgmental humanity, celebrating the flaws as much as the beauty, not afraid of the awkwardness of naked emotion. None of which is news for a long-time fan, but it’s still worth reiterating because it’s such a rare quality. Mix that with humour, pathos, fun (yes, ‘fun’), wit and quite simply some great songs and you have the Soft Cell of 2022 as much as the 1980 edition.
I wonder whether it’s their performance art beginnings that give them this ability to juggle concepts and identities so seamlessly and convincingly? Maybe that’s always been the key to understanding Messrs Almond and Ball.
*Happiness Not Included certainly starts well with a title that, in three words and an asterisk, goes a long way to summing up the increasingly obvious sickness afflicting our consumer society. But beyond the theory, what about the contents?
Earlier single, ‘Bruises on my Illusions’ is classic Soft Cell, a minimal electro pulse and a mood of increasing tension and foreboding soundtracking a brutal moment of self-realisation. In some ways it’s the 2022 successor to The Art of Falling Apart’s ‘Heat’ but of course filtered through a lifetimes’ highs and lows.
The sweetly melancholic ‘Happy Happy’ shares its sadness at the failure of the sleek and shiny future we were promised to actually materialise, with Pet Shop Boys’ ‘This Used to be the Future’. Which of course leads us to the PSB collaboration ‘Purple Zone’. Possibly the only slight disappointment here, it’s a serviceable song but like many dream ticket collaborations it can’t quite survive contact with the reality of unreasonably high expectations.
A clear highlight, ‘Polaroid’ is a beautifully clipped and deadpan description of the emptiness that sometimes comes with meeting an icon, in this case Warhol. It’s vivid parade of classic NYC imagery is set to a beautifully terse analogue backdrop that reminds you just how adept Dave Ball is at this stuff. God knows how many wannabes try to pull it off and fail, this is how it’s done.
Late in the album ‘Tranquiliser’ manages to surprise by smoothly integrating the skilled grasp of 60s pop classicism that the solo Marc has demonstrated on many occasions. It’s moves of this type that elevate any reunion project into the essential category, as is the steely audacity of religion-baiting, ‘I’m Not a Friend of God’, again Dave Ball’s minimalist genius giving Marc the perfect platform for delivering some welcome home truths.
Listening again to the title track is a happy reminder that not all of your favourites let you down by becoming detached and disconnected from the madness around them as they grow older. Marc nails issue after difficult issue, upholding those performance art imperatives of drawing on our social reality while entertaining and provoking, a tough job in these days where post- modern irony effectively ‘defangs’ art, popular or otherwise. It’s a mirror held up to the society we’ve created and, spoiler alert, it’s not a pretty picture.
When given the horror story of life on planet earth in 2022 how could they fail to find the inspiration that drives these rich and compelling songs?
Welcome to the wonderful world of Soft Cell, what a long, strange trip it’s been and on the evidence of *Happiness Not Included I’m happy to say: it’s not over yet…
*Happiness Not Included is released 6th May 2022.
Photo by Andrew Whitton.