Soft Cell is unfairly labeled a one-hit wonder – that hit being of course “Tainted Love” – when in fact, its debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret is, top to bottom, a classic album. What’s surprising is how often it’s (mis)interpreted as a typical ’80s blast of hedonism (I suppose its danced-up, E’d-out remix, Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing, might contribute to that impression) when it’s at least a rather jaundiced portrait of the allure of such hedonism – and ultimately, I think, a blast at the oversold and commercialized market for human emotions of the early ’80s.
We’ll start with the hit: “Tainted Love” is, of course, a cover – but Soft Cell’s genius is to stuff all the outright emotional exhibitionism of its Northern Soul source into a claustrophobic box, from which Marc Almond’s emotive but tense vocal can tease out the intertwinings of desire and repulsion that is the song’s (and its album’s) subject matter. Somewhat unfashionably for the ’80s and its post-punk rejection of classic-rock tropes, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret is a narrative (or “concept album” if you insist on being all ’70s about it), although rather than delineate either a story or a set of interlinked vignettes (the typical approaches), Soft Cell focuses its narrative on the moments of its main character’s life. He’s an average guy, with a steady but dull middle-class job in advertising or sales or some such, with a wife and a home and a kid blah-blah-blah, but he’s getting restless. “Frustration” opens the album and, in its amusingly exaggerated laundry list of the narrator’s hidden desires, sets the tone. The sleaze is balanced by a real desperation, but the aim of desire seems, well, tainted by images drawn from films, ads, and other media. The cover of the CD shows band members Marc Almond and David Ball in leather jackets, appearing to be illuminated solely by the neon lights spelling out the band’s name and album title. Almond holds a crumpled envelope halfway out of his jacket – what is it? Drugs? Illicit photos? The back cover (of the CD issue, anyway – not sure what the original LP looked like) displays a night-time commercial strip with signs advertising peep shows, “sex literature,” and “cinematic sex,” with a blurred figure walking past the signs. The imagery is all very second-hand – but in this case, I think that plays directly into the narrator’s borrowed notions of decadence. Throughout, the lyrics are unclear as to which scenes actually take place and which are fantasies (“isn’t that…you on the screen?” “Be quiet – that’s not me!”), and the logical, narrative sequence of the last three tracks (divorced and alone in “Bedsitter”, subject to blackmail (“Secret Life”), ending the affair in “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye“) seem out of sequence, as if some of it is merely what the narrator fears or imagines rather than what actually happens.
“Entertain me, I’m as blank as can be,” the narrator bleats…followed shortly thereafter by “do you think we’ll be paid?” He regrets the passing of his youth (in the song of that name) – yet everything he does feels empty, unfulfilling (“fill ’em up, knock ’em down,” the lyrics to “Entertain Me” repeat, the same riff circling endlessly around jeering crowd noise and an at-times intentionally inept vocal performance), and so it’s on to the next thing.
The CD concludes with a song often mischaracterized as merely “sentimental” or “romantic,” “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.” Musically, and especially melodically, it surely is – but the lyrics are a bit less so: its second verse, for example, is manipulatively cruel, with the guy following the classic script of trying to make his would-be-ex hate him instead of want him: “I’ll find someone who’s not going cheap in the sales / a nice little housewife… / who won’t keep going off the rails.” Still, Almond sells the narrator’s situation: despite his dissatisfaction, he’s found something that moves him, that opens him up. Compare the pinched, tense vocal performance of “Frustration” with the unafraid melodrama of this track: even if the narrator’s life is in ruins, and the sleazy world he’s explored mostly a ploy to sap both his money and his soul, the music here argues that however corrupted and corroded there’s something worthwhile here beyond the arid routine of our narrator’s earlier life. As a lyricist Almond is smart enough to contrast this hint of submerged worth with what is really a rather desperate situation, just as its liberatory potential is quite well hidden underneath the sordid marketization of desire the album’s well-drowning in.
Musically, the sheen now associated with early ’80s synth-pop is largely missing: not only are the synths rather downmarket and grungy, acoustic instruments play a large role (some particularly sleazy sax and clarinet work appear at key places), and Almond’s tendency to sing slightly sharp is exploited to give the album a strangely unhinged air (most evident in the wordless falsetto in the fade to “Seedy Films”). Ultimately neither a condemnation nor an endorsement of ’80s-style decadence, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret instead looks it in the eye and tries to honestly assess it. It acknowledges the reality and desperation of the cloistered emotional space allotted to a typical middle-class young man…but recognizes (in a phrase from a much more overtly political band of the era) the “dirt behind the daydream” in the purported happy ever-after.