“BUZZIN’ LIKE A BIG VIBRATOR!” sings Marc Almond on old-school hi-NRG disco banger ‘Nostalgia Machine‘, that saucy glint back in his eye, and with that the mighty Soft Cell, genuine national treasures, are BACK. Huge sighs of relief all round for those of us who feared that *Happiness Not Included might have underwhelmed us at best, been an embarrassment at worst. Fear not Cellmates, because it’s absolutely bloody brilliant.
Pet Shop Boys collaboration ‘Purple Zone‘ is a case in point. On first listen it was disappointing, a PSBs B-side with Marc on guest vocals; then I realised it had been permanently stuck in my head for weeks and that the joy of those two voices – voices that soundtracked much of my youth – combining on that wonderful chorus, was blasting my brain’s pleasure points with dopamine nostalgia hits. And anyway, PSBs B-sides are better than your favourite band’s A-sides, so of course it’s great. The rest of the album does the same, taking your low expectations and dancing all over them with malicious glee.
*Happiness… is very much classic Soft Cell, bleepy analogue synths and Almond back on his familiar territory of darkened nightclubs, bedsits and the seedier side of life. ‘Polaroid‘ sees him “lost in the junkie jungle” of New York, having an underwhelming meeting with Andy Warhol and fantasising that he’d actually met Dallessandro, Reed and Nico, set to a tune beamed straight from 1981. ‘Bruises On All My Illusions‘ is a thrilling techno throbber in which a young Marc finds out that big city life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but resolves to make his dreams come true no matter what. And ‘Light Sleepers‘, in many ways a companion piece to Pulp‘s ‘Bar Italia‘, is a gorgeous ballad that finds Marc hanging out with the all-nighters, coming down as the sun comes up, in some of the most evocative lyrics of his career.
But lest you think *Happiness… is an exercise in nostalgia, it’s also a state-of-the-world address. Like OMD‘s stunning 2017 album The Punishment of Luxury, a lot of the album is concerned with how the optimistic futurism of the early 80s has turned out to be a crock, and instead of having a life of leisure with our jetpacks & flying cars, we’re working our arses off whilst spending our leisure time as slaves to digital devices, and fooling ourselves that we’re happy. So the title track takes aim at those who want life with all the rough edges smoothed off, a life where you have a right not to be exposed to anything offensive – “We can’t sanitise our history just because it’s not what we want it to be…before you get deluded, check the small print of life” – whilst ‘Heart Like Chernobyl‘ (with its brilliant opening line “Oh dear, I feel like North Korea“) is a withering put down of right-wing trolls such as Katie Hopkins:
“People escaping the war in boats, tip them over and see who floats
When I’m faced with people dying
No emotion, it’s like watching a soap…
Throw me down the waste disposal
I have a heart like Chernobyl”
After an opening eight tunes of classic early-80s synthpop, Dave Ball throws a few bones to those of us for whom the band’s finest hour remains the grimy, experimental This Last Night…in Sodom and broadens the album’s sonic palette in its final third. ‘Nighthawks‘, one of the best things the band have ever done, is industrial electro-funk that wouldn’t sound out of place on a late 80s Front 242 or Nitzer Ebb album, a young Almond being eaten alive on the 80s club scene with menacing backing vocals from NY performance artist Christeene. ‘I’m Not a Friend of God‘ is the kind of questioning spiritual blues that Depeche Mode once specialised in. The beautiful ‘Tranquiliser‘ bemoans the soporific effect of social media on our brains & society in general (“I’ve lost my mind, I’ve lost my voice/’Cos I’m paralysed by too much choice“) to a stunning Walker Brothers-esque arrangement. And closing ballad ‘A New Eden‘ overcomes the negativity of much of the album and ends on an optimistic note, asking us to put ourselves in the shoes of refugees casting off for a new life and believe that a better world, the one we were dreaming of back in 1981, might still be possible.
That these guys – with Almond’s life-threatening motorbike crash and Ball’s lung disease (and recent cracked vertebrae) – are still making music at all is remarkable; that they’re making music as fresh, inspired, angry, sexy, innovative and downright wonderful as this is nothing short of a miracle. Like that big vibrator, I’m absolutely BUZZIN’.