Two decades on since their last album, Dave Ball and Marc Almond reconvene
Of the many comeback albums in recent times Soft Cell’s is perhaps the most unexpected of all, considering they played a farewell show at London’s O2 Arena in 2018 and we all thought that was that. It’s also 20 years after their last album, so number five was about as likely as a post-death Elvis Presley sighting being real.
For all the romantic history they are afforded, the reality is that Soft Cell weren’t necessarily as big as you would believe if you weren’t actually there. Their debut LP Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret is their go-to album, but despite its appeal and intrigue surrounding its tackling of sleazy and largely still taboo subjects, it wasn’t as strong as maybe it’s retrospectively made out to be. Soft Cell’s real strength, however, was the knack of crafting their own synthpop singles – across their early career rather than any one album – despite their biggest song being a cover, of course.
For Happiness Not Included, Dave Ball created the soundscapes and then passed them to Marc Almond to write the songs. He’s made a conscious effort to “look at us as a society”; but listening to opener Happy Happy, it sounds like a recollection of the future they envisaged in the past, and the clichéd lyrics are a little predictable. Yet when Almond delivers the line “in PVC like leather” you can’t help but smirk/cringe/wince, and although the music is reasonable, the song doesn’t work too well. And that can be said of much of the album, particularly the first half.
The duo appear to be chasing the past all too often, and it seems inappropriate when others are doing this kind of thing rather better. Polaroid uses industrial sparsity, sounding like it’s been plucked straight out of the early 1980s (which is referenced in the lyrics too), but the vocal melodies don’t carry much weight. Single Bruises On My Illusions also fails to deliver much of note despite its backdrop doing its best again; so far, the songs just aren’t there.
Heart Like Chernobyl doesn’t lift the mood either – no surprise considering its title – and Purple Zone is similarly lacking something; however, the single version – recorded with the Pet Shop Boys – adds some much needed sparkle missing in the far inferior album version, proving that given just that little helping hand, maybe things aren’t as bleak as they at first seem. The title track falls just off the pace though, but the margins are so fine that again, there’s the sense that if they’d been given a little push then it could have been another highlight. Nostalgia Machine then repeats the point in question.
Where the album does deliver is where Soft Cell haven’t made a name for themselves before. Light Sleepers is the first hint of this – it’s far slower, less sleazy and more relevant than a couple of near-OAPs chasing their youth. I’m Not A Friend Of God and Tranquiliser both fare better and approach the kind of song they might better have focused their attentions on more. And then closer New Eden hits the bullseye; based around a repetitive piano riff, the track conjures up a different version of Soft Cell and works perfectly, proving that perhaps to naturally progress with age, like a fine wine maturing, is what they should have allowed to happen throughout.
The problem with Happiness Not Included is that it’s not what you want a Soft Cell album to sound like in 2022, particularly when you hear tracks like the awful Nighthawks where creepily grotesque vocals sound like your grandad leering after young lithe bodies. They’ve had their day doing one thing, they now need to do another, and while further albums are even less likely than this one, Happiness Not Included feels like something of a missed opportunity.