There are many positive things to be said about Marc Almond and a career which has endured beyond fad and fashion to earn him the credentials of an artist of genuine cultural worth. But above all the guy is an interpreter.
Take his two most famous records, which notably come from quite different musical milieus. First, “Tainted Love”, which Almond and Soft Cell compadre David Ball turned from a Northern soul cult track into a staple of pop dancefloors, wedding parties and karaoke heaven (or hell) that will last for all time; but which to this day retains that slightly eerie, uneasy vocal quality from someone who does truly understand life’s underbelly as Almond does. (If you have any doubts about that magnificent single’s durability, consider that it spent an unprecedented 42 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982.)
And then there was his celebrated duet with the master of the keening vocal, Gene Pitney, “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart”, which piled on feeling on to emotion on to climax, and showcased an Almond who was capable of mixing passion and pathos in copious measure.
And so to Almond’s new album, Shadows and Reflections, which charts a line from his duet with Pitney and other cover versions such as “Days of Pearly Spencer” — a collection (bar two new tracks) of 1960s songs (some well-known; others obscure) which the northern-born English singer was always destined to curate. Indeed, it comes as a surprise that he hasn’t made such an album previously.
The album is neatly divided into two sides, with an “Overture” to begin each half, and the overall listening experience bears out the “game of two halves” story. Whether it is because it’s the way Almond and his collaborators have carved out the running order, but side two is full of passion and mystery while side one is by comparison too, er, polite and faithful.
“How Can I Be Sure”, the Young Rascals’ classic (reinterpreted dreamboat-style by David Cassidy amongst others) is an example of Almond paying too much respect on side one. We might have expected such a versatile interpreter to inhabit this lyric of a fickle and ambivalent world with his unique brand of interrogative doubt; instead, Almond goes more for surface sheen, and you are left wanting to retreat to the Rascals, Cassidy, and co.
This contrasts with the double whammy with which Almond starts side two: first a cover of the Herd (Peter Frampton’s first band) spectral “From the Underworld” (which mentions darkness, shadows and ghosts in the first 42 seconds — you get the meaning); and then on to the Yardbirds’ downright spooky “Still I’m Sad” (extraordinary to realise the band cut that record as early 1965). But it’s not just the subject matter; it’s as if Almond invests in it when he sings it, instead of only paying respectful tribute. The arrangements are also top class.
There are other highlights on the second side: a magisterial version of the mid-’60s movie song, “The Shadow of Your Smile”; the off-kilter Barry Ryan song “All Thoughts of Time”. Plus two originals, including “Embers”, which showcases Almond’s ever-present ability to deliver a torch song.
Shadows and Reflections is a worthy addition to Marc Almond’s considerable canon. It also displays his impeccable musical taste (here is a man who only two weeks headlined a Marc Bolan tribute in London). The best tracks on the album will bear repeated listening. But the collective experience makes you wonder if Almond could have delivered more if he had cast aside all inhibitions and let fly — maybe a second collection could achieve that.