I’m so tired of bitching about sloppy, incomplete compilations that it’s a thrill to find myself non-stop ecstatic dancing to The Very Best of Soft Cell. This latest in a long line of compilations of the early ’80s synth-pop duo’s hits (including a 1991 mostly remixes package with the misleading title Memorabilia: Singles) is the only one you need. What makes it so superior is its scope; The Very Best Of betters the The Singles 1981-1985, previously the most representative collection of Soft Cell’s work, by eight tracks, including the essential “Where Did Our Love Go?” and “Sex Dwarf”. Also included are two new recordings that are as good as, if not better than, any of the older material, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who heard Soft Cell’s 2002 high-quality comeback Cruelty Without Beauty.
Highlights are many. The coolly hot robotic drone of the Daniel Miller-produced debut single “Memorabilia” should make it a far more respected dance-floor favorite than it is. “Sex Dwarf” provides just the kind of pure evil fun you’d expect from the title, with demented lyrics about bondage and “luring disco dollies to a life of vice”. On “It’s a Mugs Game”, vocalist Marc Almond one-ups himself by portraying the dark side of nightlife in as horrific a manner as possible, singing: “You never were one for holding drink / And you stagger up to the toilet and you throw up / Like it was Christmas / And you miss the bowl / And you hit your shoes and there’s no paper towel”. “Down in the Subway” is another winner, containing Almond’s favorite themes of love gone wrong, self-loathing, and seedy environs set to a rockabilly/cabaret hybrid sound replete with chain-gang-style backing vocals. And of course there is the fabulous “Tainted Love”, the top-selling British single of 1981 and Soft Cell’s only substantial American hit, which has become a staple of alternative radio, dance clubs, and even television commercials — and rightly so, because it is as catchy, danceable, and lovesick as any enduring pop hit could be. A few tracks on the latter half of the disc are blander, more standard dance fare, but that’s less a weakness of the compilers than of Soft Cell itself, whose drug problems by that time were getting in the way of the music. The good news is that even the worst tracks on The Very Best of Soft Cell aren’t bad, and the new tracks and remixes that end the album close it on a high note.
What’s most impressive about hearing the work of Marc Almond and musical partner Dave Ball twenty years on is how diverse in scope it is. While synthesizers dominate their sound (although horns occasionally punctuate the mix), Ball and Almond covered a lot of ground with their limited palette. They are equally convincing at the hard-edged electro of “Memorabilia” as on the sleazy “Sex Dwarf” or the sweet ballad “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”. Of course, the sleazier tracks are the most fun, and the duo seemed to know it, going so far as to proclaim its sound “sleazy listening”. Northerners who felt distant from the pretentious glamour of London, they also, as Almond says in the liner notes, “came from punk and post-punk”, which is obvious in their choice of Mike Hedges (The Cure, Siouxsie & the Banshees) as longtime producer. Soft Cell is something like Erasure’s evil twin; while both pioneered a gay synth/dance sound, Soft Cell’s version was always a little harder, darker, and more dangerous. Now that the post-grunge animosity toward the ’80s has been replaced by imitative nostalgia, the time is right for rediscovering Soft Cell — and finally, with the release of The Very Best Of, novices will have a logical starting point.