When Soft Cell played a spectacular, sold-out show before 20,000 emotional fans at The O2 in September 2018, the London concert was seen by all and sundry as a grand finale. It had been billed as One Night: One Final Time, leaving devotees in no doubt that a duo who had done so much to define the sound of British electronic pop in the 1980s were saying hello to wave one last, passionate goodbye. At least that had been the idea. Singer Marc Almond and instrumentalist Dave Ball had originally gone their separate ways in 1984 before reuniting for two years in the early 2000s to make the Cruelty Without Beauty album. The intention at the O2 had been to draw a line under a roller-coaster ride that had seen Soft Cell secure three Top Ten albums and six Top Ten singles, including 1981’s all-conquering Tainted Love, while setting a template for synth acts from the Pet Shop Boys to Years & Years.
But such was the reaction – and the sense of purpose the pair rediscovered onstage – that the big adieu turned out to be a new dawn. The reality is that Marc and Dave bring the best out of one another as performers, and the sense that there was still plenty of mileage left in their partnership was inescapable. Now the latest fruits of a bond that was first forged in the art department of Leeds Polytechnic in 1977 are here in the shape of a new studio album, *Happiness Not Included. Out in February 2022 through a new deal with BMG, the album – only the band’s fifth full LP in 41 years – reiterates their ability to take big themes and big emotions and wrap them up in wonderfully melodic three-minute pop songs.
‘I was as surprised as anyone by what happened at The O2,’ says Marc. ‘When the show was first suggested, I thought it might flop terribly, with maybe 3,000 fans in a cavernous arena. When it sold out in a weekend, I was stunned. It was thrilling and daunting, and the night itself was a career high for me. It was a concert for the fans rather than the critics, and even the odd mistake – there’d been no production warm-up – made it all the more exciting. I hadn’t expected anything like the love that filled the room. Being back onstage with Dave felt great.
‘If you’d asked me a few months before The O2 whether Soft Cell had a future, I’d have said no. But everything seemed right again. Once I got used to the idea of making new music, I became really excited. I felt that if Dave could come up with the tunes, I’d be able to write the words. Soft Cell has always been like that. Things just happen… or sometimes they don’t.’
For Dave, too, it was The O2 that gave the duo the impetus to return to the studio, although he’d always had a sneaking suspicion that Soft Cell would make new music. ‘Our fans always wanted a new album, so once Marc came round to the idea, we were up and running,’ he says. ‘I never wanted to call the O2 concert One Final Time in the first place. It felt as if we were burning our bridges. I’d have preferred something like A Wild Celebration, but I guess that wouldn’t have sounded quite so grand.’
*Happiness Not Included is a superb addition to the Soft Cell canon, a catalogue of albums that dates back to the neon-lit pop of Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (1981) and encompasses the dark opulence of The Art Of Falling Apart (1983), the gnarly, electronic punk of This Last Night In Sodom (1984), and Cruelty Without Beauty (2002). Produced by Dave, with Grammy-winning Phillip Larsen as co-producer, it combines busy dance tracks, widescreen electronic pop and ballads that add a new sophistication to the Soft Cell sound. With Marc’s lyrics adopting a global perspective that takes in vivid vignettes from Britain, New York, Los Angeles and the former Soviet Union, it’s a classic Soft Cell synthesis of sunshine and shadow.
‘When I’m writing for Soft Cell, I’m in a different place to the one I inhabit as a solo artist,’ says Marc. ‘With Soft Cell, I look outwards as opposed to inwards. I avoid dark ballads about unrequited romance and focus instead on social references and worldly politics. My cynicism and sarcastic humour come out. In Soft Cell, I write about the small print of life.’
Dave takes up the baton: ‘Marc and I might seem like chalk and cheese in terms of our personalities, but it’s amazing how much we have in common once we get together. There’s an overall sound and feel we both love. It’s a mixture of fantasy and social commentary – a fascination with the darker side. We look under the carpet. We find the skeletons in the cupboard.’
*Happiness Not Included was, of course, made in the midst of a pandemic. There are no direct references to coronavirus or lockdown in the songs, but the need to socially distance meant the album was recorded remotely, a challenging state of affairs aggravated by Marc catching Covid-19 early on. ‘For a while, I couldn’t sing without feeling breathless, and I’m still suffering from long Covid symptoms,’ he says. ‘Some days, I’d sound nasal and raspy, as my sinuses were damaged by the virus. My singing eventually improved, but I can still hear the effects of the virus on certain tracks. I’ve left them as they are, though, as it’s a reminder of a certain period that we all went through.’
For Dave, the ramifications of the pandemic manifested themselves in less obvious ways, with *Happiness Not Included addressing grown-up issues without being overly pessimistic. ‘There’s a lot of soul-searching and questioning,’ he says. ‘Marc and I are in our 60s, so singing a silly teenybop song wouldn’t feel right. But it’s not all doom and gloom. We’re not ranting, as the last thing people want to hear right now is a couple of angry old men. This is a very melodic record. It’s reflective, but also life-affirming.’
Highlights abound, the shimmering ballad Heart Like Chernobyl among them. Dropped digitally as an initial taster for the album in August 2021, the song’s melody was written by Dave, with Marc adding lyrics inspired by the desensitising effect of gloomy news bulletins. The song also provided the inspiration for the album artwork: a photo of the ferris wheel at the abandoned Pripyat amusement park in Ukraine, close to the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Says Marc: ‘During the pandemic, we were all news addicts, looking for hope, but actually being terrorised by fear and death. Beyond the virus, we’ve seen fires in Greece, floods in Germany, migrants drowning in boats – and the UK on the verge of becoming a nation of angry, resentful narcissists.’
At the other extreme, Nostalgia Machine is a busy, up-tempo dance track that stresses the band’s lighter side. The song – a ‘let your hair down moment’ according to Marc – is a disco romp that takes in a litany of retro-minded references, with nods to T.Rex, Studio 54, David Essex’s Silver Dream Racer and Hawkwind’s Silver Machine. There are pop culture references, too, on Polaroid, a semi-fictionalised account of Soft Cell’s encounters with Andy Warhol in New York City in 1982. ‘Warhol was a massive influence on us both, and Polaroid was inspired by a meeting we had with him at The Factory,’ says Marc. ‘But the reality didn’t quite match up to what I’d imagined a meeting with Warhol would be like. We took Polaroids and Super 8mm films of each other, and talked the smallest of small-talk. But it wasn’t disappointing, because that’s how Andy was. It would have been more disappointing if it hadn’t been disappointing.’
Elsewhere, the album is illuminated by slower songs such as future single Purple Zone and the snake-hipped, pimp-like shuffle I’m Not A Friend Of God. There’s also the atmospheric Light Sleepers, a sympathetic portrayal of Californian night owls that features wailing, Bowie-like sax by Gary Barnacle, who appeared with Soft Cell at The O2 and played on This Last Night In Sodom. ‘Light Sleepers is the closest thing to a personal song on the album,’ says Marc. ‘I wrote it at 6am in a Los Angeles cafe. I was looking at the half-asleep characters and wondering about their lives. I’m sure they were wondering about mine as well. It’s about that brilliant feeling of watching the sun rise through the palm trees in LA – the diffused light, and the feeling of being transported back to the 1960s or 1970s, something that always comes with a touch of darkness in LA. You can never quite escape the spectre of Hollywood’s scandalous past.’
For Dave, the album’s inventive, varied arrangements are the product of over four decades of recording experience. ‘My technical ability has improved over the years,’ he says. ‘I’ve learnt from working with other musicians, and you can hear that on this album. The sound is rich, but also minimalist. I’ve learnt not to make things too complicated.’
As for Marc, the singer is justifiably proud of a record on which the duo sound as fresh, relevant and accomplished as ever. ‘I’m over the moon with it,’ he says. ‘I tend to make music first and foremost for myself. If other people like it, then that’s the cherry on the cake. The pandemic has made me reevaluate my life. I’ve said “never again” far too often in the past. Now I want to grab opportunities and experiences while I can. After the past two years, Soft Cell fans need something to look forward to – and Dave and I do too. It’s always an adventure.’