One of Marc Almond and Dave Ball’s joint regrets, which they’ve both told Classic Pop, is that Soft Cell didn’t follow their pop instincts enough. Ever since deciding not to include Torch on The Art Of Falling Apart, the duo swerved straight-up pop in favour of their darker side.
Artistically, it worked – as Dave has pointed out, TAOFA and This Last Night In Sodom were precursors for Depeche Mode’s reinvention as stadium goths.
For anyone yearning for Soft Cell to do another Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, however, it’s been a 41-year-wait. Their first comeback album, Cruelty Without Beauty, certainly had some bangers, but many of the sessions’ best pop moments were notoriously instead given away on assorted compilations until 2020’s excellent reissue showed what could have been.
In effect, it all means that *Happiness Not Included is the duo’s pop comeback album.
Finally able to relax with each other again, not thinking of the hit machine or which element of their fanbase they should be pleasing, easing into pop music once more suits Marc and Dave perfectly. They’ve already been confident enough about their first album for 20 years to preview half of it live on their 2021 tour.
Quite right, too: Happy Happy Happy is a monstrous club moment for audiences, defying the cosiness of the nostalgia circuit with Dave Ball’s keyboards pounding away with the menace of Numbers. Marc’s lurid leering about unisex uniforms and VR sex set the tone for a retro futurism both his lyrics and Dave’s slightly sinister Blade Runner keyboards plug into perfectly.
Reminiscences of meeting Andy Warhol in Polaroid continue the elegantly bouncy mood, peaking with the extraordinary Nighthawks.
A duet with performance artist Christeene, it’s the album’s Sex Dwarf, a brilliant refusal to give into old age. Torch saxophonist Gary Barnacle drives the appropriately woozy Light Sleepers, while the title track – cheeky asterisk and all – is a brilliant confluence of Marc and Dave’s respective solo careers: the theatrical cabaret of Almond having a whale of a time with Ball’s off-kilter electronics.
It’s hard to imagine the sumptuous finale New Eden, straight out of Barbarella, could have been made if they hadn’t seen other people either. No matter what flavour Soft Cell fan you are, here is how you’d hope the 21st century would sound. Mightily impressive.