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Soft Cell - *Happiness Not Included (Album Review)

Tuesday, 10 May 2022 Written by Jacob Brookman

Music often needs to be understood on its own terms. You probably wouldn’t appreciate grime in a Buddhist temple, for example, nor would happy hardcore make a lot of sense at a funeral—there are semiotic codes to be considered and respected. That brings us to British synth duo Soft Cell, who are back with their first album in 20 years and their first tour since their ‘farewell’ gig at London’s O2 in 2018. Where do they fit?

Soft Cell are a strange bird. They made a huge impact in the early 1980s with a unique blend of gothic electro and camp satire before Depeche Mode switched gears, elevated that sound and became synonymous with it.

Despite this, the following 40 years have seen Marc Almond and Dave Ball secure a loyal legion of fans, and create some occasionally stunning music.

But that music often sits awkwardly between the theatrical vignettes of Kurt Weill and gloriously trashy dance-pop of Pet Shop Boys. ‘*Happiness Not Included’ is no different.

Pet Shop Boys duly feature on one of the record’s strongest tracks. Purple Zone is a chugging epic full of soaring synths, MIDI horns and wistful lyricism. Maybe it goes too far in submitting to the guests’ sound, but for fans of this corner of queer electro, it provides a marvellous, distinctive cocktail.

The more familiar Soft Cell fare comes on songs like Nighthawks and Heart Like Chernobyl. This latter track was written before Vladimir Putin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine, and is thus focused on the aborted futurism of that model town destroyed by nuclear meltdown in the 1980s. Indeed, the amusement park at Pripyat features in the album’s cover art and points to a doomy cynicism in Almond’s lyrics: “I’ve got a toxic touch ‘cos everything is dying all around me” he spits. It’s pretty good stuff.

Despite this, there remains an unease around a lot of the tracks on ‘Happiness Not Included’. The album sounds like it was created using 1990s production software, and though that needn’t be a bad thing on its own, Almond’s performance makes it sound highly dated and occasionally amateurish. That doesn’t stop it from being a highly compelling listen—it might even add to it—but these clashes take you out of the listening experience, and crucially out of Almond's great talent, his storytelling.

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