19 Years After Their Last Studio Album & 40 Years After “Tainted Love,” Soft Cell Returns

by Teagan Hughes

Staff Writer



art by Michael Hastings

[originally published November 2021]


 


As a rule, you usually expect one-hit wonders to fall off the face of the earth. They might release a few more singles after their big hit, maybe another couple studio albums. Then they’re gone. When was the last time you heard about Haddaway? Lipps, Inc.? The Buggles? The typical listener of the era may have expected the same of Soft Cell in 1984, when they broke up shortly after the release of their third full-length studio album, This Last Night in Sodom. But since then, Soft Cell has reunited multiple times to release new material, determined not to die the meager death of the one-hit wonder. Their latest effort is “Bruises On All My Illusions,” the first single from their announced 2022 album *Happiness Not Included.


“One-hit wonder” has always been somewhat of a misnomer for Soft Cell. Sure, “Tainted Love” is their only single to have ever broken the Billboard Hot 100, spending a then-record-breaking 43 weeks on the chart. But they’ve had 12 singles break the top 40 in the UK, and their first three studio albums, along with an EP of remixes, all broke the top 20 albums in ye olde England. Dave Ball’s instrumentation on their early albums was hugely influential in the world of synthpop, the genre that would dominate the ‘80s.


If you’ve only heard “Tainted Love,” the rest of Soft Cell’s output may surprise you. Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” is a cover, a reinterpretation of the original recording made by Gloria Jones in 1964. It’s this fact that sets “Tainted Love” apart from the rest of their discography. “Tainted Love” gets much of its bounce and its levity (musical, not lyrical) from the original, and it’s these qualities that made it appealing to the early ‘80s listening public, primed by the success of early MTV staples like “Video Killed the Radio Star” and “Mickey.”


The rest of Soft Cell’s discography stands in stark contrast to “Tainted Love.” It’s dense and foreboding, with close synth riffs woven together in such a way that you feel trapped inside of them. Lyrically, Soft Cell’s original music speaks to many of the common lyrical themes of early synthpop: “isolation, urban anomie, feeling cold and hollow inside, [and] paranoia,” as described by British music journalist Simon Reynolds. But it doesn’t fully embody the perceived sterility of lots of early synthpop; it engages, musically and lyrically, in a great deal more debauchery. For some great examples of this, and also just some great songs, I’d put forward “The Art of Falling Apart” and “Heat” of off their second full-length album, The Art of Falling Apart, and “Where Was Your Heart (When You Needed It Most)” and “Surrender to a Stranger” from This Last Night in Sodom.


Listening to Soft Cell has never been a passive experience for me—it can’t be. Their music is ominous and startling and introspective in turns, something that I appreciate it for. The lack of these qualities is precisely the problem with their new single, “Bruises On All My Illusions.” Musically and lyrically, it’s hard to pinpoint what distinguishes “Bruises On All My Illusions” from Soft Cell’s earlier work—less debauchery, certainly, since Marc Almond is 64 now. But I know this: I feel passive listening to it. Older Soft Cell stuff wants to get in your face, wants to unsettle you. “Bruises On All My Illusions” has no desire to invade my personal space, which is a real shame.


In the years since their first breakup, Soft Cell has become far more heavy-handed in their lyrics, lending an almost “makes-you-think” quality to them (take, for instance, the title of their upcoming album, *Happiness Not Included). At their best, Soft Cell mixed concise metaphors and colorful imagery with a near-agonizing degree of directness and honesty (see “Where Was Your Heart...”). “Bruises On All My Illusions” just doesn’t strike that balance. I don’t mean to say that Almond has totally lost his songwriting prowess; “bruises on all my illusions” is certainly an engaging piece of figurative language, and there are additional compelling turns of phrase here and there. However, I would contend that “Bruises On All My Illusions” just doesn’t carry the same urgency and defiance of their earlier repertoire. It’s a dull blade.


It’s a cliché to declare that an aging musician has lost their edge. I don’t want to fall into this cliché, but I struggle to find another way to say it. Of course, I don’t mean to imply that there is no musical or lyrical value in “Bruises On All My Illusions.” As I stated above, there are some engaging lyrics, and Dave Ball, as always, plays a great synth. This isn’t Soft Cell trying to rehash their old successes; there is clearly something new at play here that shouldn’t be disregarded. What exactly that thing is remains to be seen. I suppose we’ll find out in 2022.