It’s been over forty years since Soft Cell burst onto the mainstream music scene with their performance of ‘Tainted Love’ on Top Of The Pops. Frontman Marc Almond can be seen wearing multiple layers of eyeliner as he effortlessly commands the stage, with Dave Ball playing his synthesiser in the background. At the time, this generated many complaints to the BBC, primarily due to homophobia. The protests from some only reinforced Soft Cell’s resolve. Soft Cell have always dared to be unconventional, and their fifth album *Happiness Not Included is another statement of that intent. Dave Ball’s evocative, powerful synths combine brilliantly with Marc Almond’s lyrics that explore past conceptions and memories with an anti-establishment flair.
The opening track ‘Happy Happy Happy’ welcomes us to a menacing dystopian setting, with lyrics that talk about “state assisted dying” and a life with “very little meaning,” characterised by Dave Ball’s pulsating synths. As someone who grew up in the 1960s, Marc Almond has described this song as “mocking how naive our visions were during the sixties, inspired by science fiction stories, and how different the future has grown to be in contrast to what we thought would happen.” This naivety is illustrated by Almond’s descriptions of “‘electricity that never fails” and the ability to “live in our bubble” at the start of the track. ‘Happy Happy Happy’ then launches into a captivating synth beat drop for the chorus, as Almond sings “happy happy happy // never ever crying” in a monotonous and almost authoritarian tone.
The next song, ‘Polaroid’, recounts Soft Cell’s meeting with American artist Andy Warhol in New York during the 1980s. This track, in particular, showcases the talent of synth pioneer Dave Ball. The synthesiser melody in ‘Polaroid’ is infectious and combines perfectly with Almond’s simple chorus about his unostentatious encounter with Warhol; “he saw me, and he said hi // I said hi, and he said gee.” ‘Polaroid’ also includes speech snippets of artists talking about their work and how they take polaroids, helping us feel immersed in the Warhol world of the 1980s in NYC. Despite this immersive feel, there is also an underlying theme of nostalgia. We are brought back to the present day at the end of the track with Almond wistfully reflecting on memories past: “and now do we exist at all? // a polaroid stuck on my wall // faded like my dreams, and really just nothing at all.”
‘Bruises On All My Illusions,’ the second single from *Happiness Not Included, has been described by Marc Almond as a ‘mini film noir story about a disillusioned character who still has hope.’ In Soft Cell terms, it has been described as a ‘darker’ version of their 1981 hit ‘Bedsitter,’ a song about the repetitiveness and loneliness of living in a bedsit. The pulsing synth beat throughout ‘Bruises On My Illusions’ is almost hypnotic in its repetitiveness, and Almond’s lyrics deal with the effects of feeling isolated yet still holding on to the possibility of change: “but time will heal all my bruises // and my dreams can become reality.”
‘Purple Zone,’ meanwhile, is a dazzling collaboration between Soft Cell and Pet Shop Boys. Quite simply, it is a meeting of two synth-pop titans. Dave Ball’s emotive synth chords combine brilliantly with synth pioneer Chris Lowe’s trademark high energy music arrangements. Lowe has also added a hi-NRG sheen, a synth feature common on many 80s dancefloor hits, which only adds to the intensity of the track. In what is an extraordinary pop moment, Marc Almond and Neil Tennant sing together about the realities of ageing and the quick passing of time: “all the fleeting moments of beauty // you blinked, and then they were gone.” ‘Purple Zone’ is an energetic dance floor anthem with emotive lyrics that will resonate with the older generation of fans who have been following the two synth giants for over forty years.
The title track ‘Happiness Not Included’ provides stirring social commentary on the current state of society, recalling Soft Cell’s post-punk roots that they embodied in the early 1980s. “England was built on sorrow and pain // slavery and ill-gotten gain” exclaims the Soft Cell frontman before launching into the track’s bridge which talks about how “hand gel won’t sanitise your sins.” When asked about the inspiration behind the album, Almond stated that “I wanted to look at us as a society… a place where we have chosen to put fanatacism before fairness, and our own trivial comforts before the unspeakable agonies of others.”
‘Happiness Not Included’ is an anti-establishment mantra, and although the analysis in the lyrics critiques current events, the song harks Soft Cell back to their earliest demos which were characterised by rage and social examination. Although this state of the nation treatise compounded into a synth track will not be to every listener’s taste, the witty lyrics with the soul-stirring synth chords make this track a compelling listen.
‘Nighthawks’ is a callback to the sleazy songs that Soft Cell released on their debut album Non Stop Erotic Cabaret in 1981. Forty years on from their initial success, it is a risk for Soft Cell to produce a track like this, but it is a risk that pays off. In collaboration with Christeene, a New York-based performance artist, they succeed in creating a track that combines danceable synth melodies with vocals and lyrics that push boundaries and generate uneasiness. After all, this has always been the Soft Cell formula. “You see and breathe the fire of the snake” snarls Christeene, in what is a fantastically haunting and unconventional vocal performance, along with Almond, who sings about the temptation of the nighthawks.
The tracks slow down in pace as the album draws to its conclusion. ‘Tranquiliser’ explores the suffering that occurs under mass commercialisation and living life behind digital screens, as Almond pleads with you to “look into my zombie eyes // there’s nothing there to see.” Dave Ball masterfully adds a repetitive bell toll at the start of ‘Tranquiliser,’ a genius move that makes the track feel apocalyptic.
*Happiness Not Included concludes with ‘New Eden,’ a cinematic number that is based around a repetitive piano riff. It’s a solemn way to end the album. Still, it also brings together the themes that have been explored in previous tracks. “Leaving, we’re leaving // looking for the New Eden “ croons Marc Almond in what is a spine-tingling chorus, and it’s powerful enough to make you want to join him on his quest for a new paradise. In a current global climate that has been ravaged by coronavirus and increases in the cost of living, the cautiously optimistic message of ‘New Eden’ reminds us that change is possible, despite adversity.
Soft Cell’s *Happiness Not Included combines Marc Almond’s typical extravagant dramatism with Dave Ball’s innovative synth. The lyrical themes criticise and satirise the current social climate with a yearning for new freedom. *Happiness Not Included retains Soft Cell’s anti-establishment nuance that they’ve embodied throughout their forty-year long career.
Words by Ester Scott
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