The phrase “pop outsider” may at first blush seem to be a naked contradiction — after all, if “pop” is short for “popular”, one’s very status as “pop” should preclude any description as an “outsider” — yet, in describing figures such as Marc Almond, it becomes incredibly difficult to call them anything else. With a career now spanning three decades, breaking the top ten on UK pop charts both with Soft Cell and as a solo musician, Almond most certainly fits the “pop” qualifier. Still, it becomes incredibly hard to argue with his status as an outsider. Sexuality is most certainly a part of it, as while the more popular musicians of the 1980s new wave scene played with androgyny and dropped vague hints at homosexuality, Almond was openly gay. But more than his lack of shame regarding his sexual preferences, it was his honesty that set him apart from the rest.
Although Almond had announced his intention to retire from the music scene, a fellow pop outsider brought him back. Chris Braide, as the producer and songwriter behind hits from Britney Spears, David Guetta, Afrojack, Lana Del Rey and too many others to name, would seem an odd candidate for “outsider” status, but where Almond is relegated to the sidelines by his openness and honesty, Braide’s issue is one of anonymity. Few would ever bother looking up the name of the man who wrote the latest single from any of the pop idols he’s worked with, and his own efforts as a musician failed to score a single chart hit. A long-time fan of Almond’s, he sent the elder musician a trio of instrumental tracks in 2014, hoping to change his mind about retirement, and all three were met with resounding enthusiasm. Those initial instrumentals later paved the way for a full album, and thus The Velvet Trail was born.
Listening to the album, it’s easy to see why Almond took to Braide’s music. Neither quaintly old-fashioned nor obnoxiously contemporary, Braide’s synth-pop compositions hover somewhere outside of time and place; perfectly suited to Almond’s own lack of concern for the zeitgeist. The deliberate nature of the album’s structure, with instrumental interludes lending it a distinctly operatic feeling, suits the two men’s shared vision perfectly, as it was intended to be an album first and foremost, never a mere collection of singles without an overarching theme. That Braide was adamant about this should come as no surprise. With very few exceptions, the albums he has contributed to have been committee affairs, with handfuls of songwriters and producers pulling albums in a multitude of directions at once. The organic nature of the collaboration between an artist and single producer is a refreshing change from the spoiled broth of far too many pop releases, and the only outside input comes in the form of Beth Ditto, whose own career has no shortage of parallels to Almond’s.
Almond’s lyrics don’t break any new ground, but with a career as long as his, “new ground” can be fairly hard to come by. Love, lust, and the uncertain spaces in are the dominant themes (as they always have been), with preference naturally given to the seedier side of things. From the Oriental fantasy of “Pleasure’s Wherever You Are” and its visions of “dragon boys and geisha girls” to the S&M fantasy of “Demon Lover”, Almond keeps things decidedly kinked. That’s nothing particularly unusual in a time when a film version of Fifty Shades of Grey is an international blockbuster, but shock value was never Almond’s bag anyways. Braide’s compositions match Almond’s sensibilities through a playful spirit that never goes away, even when things get dark. The Velvet Trail may lack a big hit single, but the very point of the album was to stand in contrast to a music industry that values singles over all else.
Ultimately, while mileage may vary based on the listener’s tolerance for Almond’s theatrics and the potentially unbearable lightness of Braide’s fun musical backing, The Velvet Trail is a complete and coherent artistic statement — not something one is likely to encounter all that often, but it’s only more special for its rarity.