Monday, October 29, 2007


In the United States, Soft Cell are shelved among the new romantic one hit wonders, and possibly in another musical subcategory of new wave remakes of vintage songs (see Naked Eyes, Taco...) It's not surprising that they didn't enjoy more mainstream success. To start with, they cultivated a dark, somewhat sleazy aesthetic, referencing genres that weren't getting much attention at that time (Weimar Berlin, anyone?) Moreover, their songwriting was hugely inconsistent, and Marc Almond's vocal talents were thin at times.

When Soft Cell split, Marc continued to explore the fringes of pop music, regularly incorporating orchestral arrangements and the music of Jacques Brel. He didn't turn his back completely on the idea of commercial accessibility, and the closest thing he had to a hit (in the U.S.), 'Tears run rings' is a Motown-inspired song that one could image Supremes singing, albeit with different lyrics. It makes use of a classic fifties/sixties pop formula: a ringing instrumental melody, a low verse followed by a high chorus, a minor key that somehow doesn't prevent it from being upbeat. The tight horn and string parts and a great breakdown point out how Motown anticipated disco.

But Marc has other things on his agenda, too, namely a political subtext which seemed to come naturally to so many British acts during the Thatcher era. 'Tears run rings' is 'Eve of destruction' dressed up as 'Where did our love go?'. To be sure, the song shows a level of skill in composition and in vocal performance that Marc Almond had recently raised.

The metaphor of 'Tears run rings' is a sweet, deceptively innocent lover who seduces with the intent to destroy; the real subject is a power structure (both political and religious) that pacifies its citizens while it pursues destructive goals that will be realized by the time the public discovers them. 'On heavenly rain you fell into my life / Unforgettable smile, unforgettable lies / In the name of the cross or a banner of love / with the hand of a friend or under a blanket of trust.' The thing that keeps the song from tilting too obviously into protest is the somewhat pre-Raphaelite chorus: 'The angels sighed, a little girl cried / The tears run rings around my eyes'. For the most part the images are metonomic, which makes it easier to dance through them, and they make for some fantastic lines, many involving fire: 'When the bed is burning around my head', 'You tried to burn the house down when I slept'.

The effect is the same as many of the songs from Cabaret, which take innocuous structures - the folk song, the beerhall song, the burlesque song - and inject them with ominous political subtexts. The first verse of 'Tomorrow belongs to me' is a pastoral expression of national pride; the final verse drops the veil on an ugly, xenophobic threat.

Marc Almond started his music career in art school, and he seems to have preserved an artistic/theatrical mentality throughout his career. While that may not be the best recipe for commercial success, fortunately there are plenty of other modes in which to be successful.

Marc Almond official website