Almond's joy: Marc Almond is thrilled that Soft Cell's first new album in over 18 years is no exercise in nostalgia. (music).
Besides a resounding yes from Ball, what Almond happily discovered was that the chemistry that made Soft Cell a compelling entity during the '80s British synth-pop era with hits like "Tainted Love" remained strong. "It was like we hadn't missed a step after so many years," he says. Still, the two did not initially plan to publicly reconvene as Soft Cell. "Our first intention was to find an artist to produce these songs for," he says, noting that they spent the following three years gradually building a new cache of tunes. "Then we briefly considered recording under a different name. We were just so reticent about the whole `Soft Cell reunion' concept. We didn't want to be viewed as one of those tired old bands who were whoring out their past for some fast cash."
Then, last summer, an opportunity to test the waters arose. "We were offered a gig in London. A nice big club, great lights, elaborate video," Almond says. "We thought we'd gauge the reaction. If the response was bad, we'd call it a one-off and move on." But the audience feedback was downright explosive. "It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time," the singer recalls. "It was like we'd started a fire that would not be put out. From that point there was no turning back. We were Soft Cell again."
It didn't take long for the two to shape the material they'd been fiddling with into Cruelty Without Beauty, a sterling collection that doesn't strive to pick up where the act left off as much as it aims to present them as the well-weathered men they've become. The best example of their maturity is the contemplative "Whatever It Takes," which Almond describes as being "about being middle-aged and searching for where you fit in this modern world. It's not easy--especially when you realize that you can no longer be the sleazy kid you once were. In the time since Soft Cell ended to now, I've gone from being the least clean-living person to being the cleanest-living person in the world. It's quite a switch."
That switch bodes well for the future of Soft Cell, mostly in that it allows Almond to remain clear-headed and enjoy the ride. Last time around, he admits, he was too consumed by "hard living and drama" to fully appreciate all that the act's success meant--particularly his own revered status as a rare out-queer pop star during the '80s.
"I still get letters from people who say they've benefited from me being open about my life," he says. "It's humbling, to say the least. I never set out to be a role model. I just live my life as honestly as possible--mistakes and all."
In a field now filled with considerably more openly gay artists, does he ever feel like a pioneer of sorts? "Never," he says with a chuckle. "I'm just pleased that there are more of us out there being counted. It's tricky business, though, to find balance between the politics of being gay and being an artist. But I believe I've found it."
That said, don't look for impassioned or blatant declarations of man-to-man love on Cruelty Without Beauty. "I've never written from a 100% personal perspective when I've written for Soft Cell," Almond says. "I'm mindful of the fact that these songs represent two people, so we discuss things, and I write from a broader point of view--as opposed to my solo recordings, which are more romantic and introspective."
The shift has been a pleasant change of pace for Almond, who maintains an active solo career. "I'm having the best of both worlds at the moment," he says. "I have my solo outlet to purge my soul, and I have Soft Cell to exercise different artistic muscles. It's been such a joy this time around. And there's potential for things to get even better with time. I can't wait to see what happens next."
Flick is senior talent editor at Billboard.