In a 1981 Belgian TV interview, following a slightly jittery live studio performance of ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ amid a surreal assemblage of stage-set supermarket shopping trolleys, the French-accented presenter asks Marc Almond and Dave Ball a question that nails the essence of this inimitable, hugely influential duo, and which remains as apt now as it did back then – “How do you manage to be soulful with synthesisers?”

Almond’s reply, after initially appearing giddy from the buzz of the performance, is composed and resolute, telling us everything we needed to know about Soft Cell, but also, in hindsight, explaining their enduring appeal. “Well, it just means putting a lot of heart into what you do, a lot of feeling, a lot of energy and a lot of fun,” he says, faltering momentarily before adding with clarity, “and humour as well as everything else – we don’t like approaching things with a straight-faced ‘moderne’, machine-age attitude.” And that’s the thing. That’s why they were, and continue to be, so cool. Because they never really tried to be.

On the surface, Almond and Ball form an unlikely pair – Ball is the uncomplicated straight man, a counterpoint to Almond’s florid performance dramas. Musically way more Suicide than Sparks, resolutely edgy and experimental, and the perfect foil to Almond’s disarming, heart-on-sleeve verite, a man forever and forlornly “looking for love in sad songs”.

In contrast, Ball never appears to give a monkey’s. Expressively nonchalant but never arch or soi-disant, he appears more like a beery office worker at a works do in his trademark early-days tuxedo, looking on wryly at his willowy mate cavorting in frills and make-up. Perfect opposites.

And here they still are, reunited again and pretty much unchanged in attitude and approach, serving up their first new material in 20 years. The asterisk in ‘*Happiness Not Included’ is purposeful, a commentary on the emptiness of the modern media landscape, and also an acknowledgement of imagined futures that for many, never quite materialised. The album’s arrival also comes four decades after their classic 1981 breakthrough ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’, and is entirely consistent with the broader aesthetic that Almond and Ball first perfected in Leeds’ grotty early 80s bedsit-land.

Indeed, ‘*Happiness Not Included’ is shot through with many of the traits that people took to in droves all those years ago. The singular juxtaposition of light theatrics and subterranean darkness, droll observational misanthropy and gut-wrenching heartbreak, and the universal themes of love, longing and dreams, both lost and just out of reach.

The message this time around is that, despite everything you might see around you now, there is always hope, and that we must never give up on life’s eternal quest for better times ahead.

So, even as Almond wallows in a slough of despondency above Ball’s driving basslines and shimmering, evocative synth keys on lead track ‘Bruises On My Illusions’, delivering lyrics like “When every day is coloured in Soviet greys of sorrow / I’ll hold on to my blues ‘cos they’ll only come back tomorrow”, somehow we know it’s just old Marc, over-dramatising. Though he does seek to reassure us as the track closes, with, “But time will heal all of my bruises / All my dreams can become reality”, possibly conscious that we might be worrying, such is his nature.

Almond considers the track “a mini film-noir Soft Cell story, about a disillusioned character with everything against him or her, who still has hope”. But he needn’t explain, of course – it’s a narrative we’ve heard many times from him, and which we’ll never tire of.

On ‘Heart Like Chernobyl’, amid ebullient, emotive synths he opines, “All I have to say / The news has made me this way / Another horror every day / So on your knees and pray”. Which might sound off-kilter and naive to any of us by today’s standards, never mind to anyone young and quite possibly only acquainted with ‘Tainted Love’.

But again, it’s always been this way with Soft Cell. Look them up performing at Leeds nightclub Amnesia in the early 80s, penned in by a rapt audience of hip young new wave/new romantic devotees, and you’ll hear the same tension between Ball’s stern, complex electronic avant-gardism and Almond’s instinctive desire to avoid pretension at all costs. “This is me,”he’s reiterating, “Take me as you find me.” And what we find now, of course, after all the names, the slander, the near-death experiences and the heartbreak, is an icon and a hero.

Carl Griffin

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