Listeners who acknowledge Marc Almond only as the voice behind Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” do the English singer a great disservice. Since that electro-pop landmark in 1981, Almond has steadfastly devoted his career to exploring the art of the song. As an interpreter, he has successfully taken on Jacques Brel (on Jacques), ’60s obscurities (on the mini-album A Woman’s Story), Brecht and Weill (“Surabaya Johnny” and “Pirate Jenny” on the EP of “Melancholy Rose”) — even Madonna (“Like a Prayer”). His original compositions draw inspiration from subjects as diverse (or not) as French sensualist Georges Bataille (Violent Silence) and Judy Garland (“Saint Judy” on Mother Fist). In addition, Almond has collaborated with Coil, Bronski Beat, Jim “Foetus” Thirlwell, Nico, Psychic TV, Sally Timms of the Mekons and Andi Sex Gang. One of the most uncommercial commercial artists in pop, Almond has bounced from label to label, but his devoted fans — and his ability to occasionally launch a record into the European charts (The Stars We Are‘s “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart,” redone as a duet with Gene Pitney, who first had a British hit with it in 1967, topped the British singles chart in 1989) — ensure that he always finds a home.
Made While Soft Cell was still a going concern, Almond assembled various associates to be the Mambas on his first two solo albums. ‘Untitled’ (an LP plus a three-song 12-inch) is a swell hodgepodge of originals, covers, collaborations and excesses, all sung in Almond’s appealing but pitch-poor voice. With Annie Hogan and Matt (the The) Johnson as his main collaborators, Almond ventures into summery soul (“Angels”), ambient balladry (“Big Louise”) and obvious source material (Lou Reed’s “Caroline Says,” Syd Barrett’s “Terrapin,” Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away”), covering a phenomenal variety of stylistic terrain. More an audio sketchbook than a coordinated album, ‘Untitled’ is nonetheless a fine excursion outside the techno-pop corridors of Soft Cell. Torment and Toreros, on the other hand, is a vile and pathetic attempt to ape ’30s German cabaret decadence with mostly piano/orchestral backing and calculated-to-shock vulgar lyrics. A sleazy two-record drag.
That digression over and done with, Almond moved on to the Willing Sinners, and began a far more entertaining segment of his career. Playing his campy gutter queen persona to the hilt, he is pictured on the cover of Vermin in Ermine perched on a garbage can, wearing devil’s horns and a spangled jacket he could only have borrowed from Liza Minnelli. While the songs typically reflect Almond’s seamy, negativist taste (“Ugly Head,” “Tenderness Is a Weakness,” “Crime Sublime,” “Shining Sinners,” etc.), the Sinners and sidemen provide theatrical, often sarcastically caricatured music to accompany his stylized singing. Vermin isn’t all that involving — the jolly presentation works against the grungy intent, leaving a sense of aimlessness rather than artistic tension. (The cassette and CD have three extra cuts.)
Stories of Johnny is more on track, matching moody, sometimes pretty atmospherics with Almond’s disconsolate (but brightening) outlook. The backing sporadically includes slick synthesizer maneuvers, bringing him full circle, demonstrating once again just how important Soft Cell was to earning that instrument its place in pop music. The title track (a deserving British hit) is a full-scale Spectorized production number with excellent singing.
Presaged by a double 7-inch of the album’s “Melancholy Rose,” Mother Fist (dedicated to Truman Capote, whose work provided the LP’s title) finds Almond reflecting on pleasure and pain in characteristically graphic fashion. The generally sparse and often pleasant arrangements co- exist uneasily with Almond’s decadent balladry but, given his outlook, that’s as it should be. The one total downer is the somber “Saint Judy” (as in Garland), which ends with a chilling minor-key refrain of “Get Happy” (a song she originally sang in 1950’s Summer Stock) interlaced with Almond’s own doleful refrain. Amid the record’s lighter-weight fare, it’s a powerful centerpiece. Not for the fainthearted, Mother Fist is both rewarding and disturbing.
Paring the Willing Sinners down from a sextet to a trio (and renaming the group La Magia), Almond recorded The Stars We Are, a sensual, romantic antidote to Mother Fist‘s bleak earthiness, lush with synthesized strings and horns. This is an essential album for those looking for insights into the Almond persona: “These My Dreams Are Yours” and “Bittersweet” both serve as apologias of sorts. A duet with Nico on “Your Kisses Burn” and an emotional rendition of Gene Pitney’s “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” are also highlights.
Jacques is a tribute to the Belgian singer/poet whose influence pervades Almond’s work. Mostly recorded with an augmented Willing Sinners lineup back in ’86 (some tracks are as late as ’89), it’s a real showcase for Almond’s abilities as an interpretive singer, especially as the vocals are mixed way up front over spare backgrounds. Regardless of how you feel about Almond or Brel — although it does help to appreciate both here — Jacques is an ambitious undertaking by an increasingly confident and always adventurous artist.
Almond made Enchanted without longtime keyboardist Annie Hogan or a human drummer; the use of both Fairlight synthesizer and an orchestra (not to mention brass players) creates a not entirely attractive tension between sterility and warmth. Lacking a strong stylistic hand, the arrangements (by Almond and stalwart keyboardist/bassist Billy McGee) are hit-and-miss, too often overzealous when a little bit of restraint would have done the trick. Almond’s singing and writing, however, are unpretentiously entertaining, uniting past notions with subtle cohesion and as little overt camp as the listener cares to enjoy. Best track: the faux-Balkan bounce of the satanic “Deaths Diary.”
Almond’s wayfarer status, coupled with his prodigious output, guarantees a plethora of compilations. Issued subsequent to the self-explanatory Singles 1984-1987 (ten songs, including “Stories of Johnny,” “Mother Fist,” “Tenderness Is a Weakness” and “The House Is Haunted”), A Virgin’s Tale — two individual CDs composed of almost all Almond’s EP and B-sides from 1985 through 1987 — is especially rich in strong material. Heavily loaded with remixes and demos, the two-CD (but could have been one) Treasure Box covers rarities from 1988 to 1990.
The singer got his umpteenth fresh start in 1991 with two releases, one providing a sense of closure on what had gone before, the other looking to the future. Memorabilia collects thirteen cuts (plus two remixes) from both Soft Cell and Almond’s solo career. With regard to the latter, the album omits anything from Vermin in Ermine, Stories of Johnny and Mother Fist (not to mention his two prior Marc and the Mambas albums), focusing instead on more accessible material. In what has to be seen as a belated admission of their original inadequacy, Almond offered to lay down new vocals for three Soft Cell songs he felt ready to improve upon: “Memorabilia,” “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” and (of course) “Tainted Love,” which promptly shot back into the British Top 10.
The concurrent Tenement Symphony is a muddled affair. The record suffers from a surplus of polish; Trevor Horn, who produced the titular second-half suite, threatens to bury Almond in the mix. When the singer rises to the occasion, the chemistry proves explosive, as on flamboyant readings of Brel’s “Jacky” and David MacWilliams’ “The Days of Pearly Spencer.” The beautiful original “My Hand Over My Heart,” which reunites Almond with Soft Cell keyboard partner Dave Ball (now working with Richard Norris as the Grid), does not fare as well; two other such collaborations (“Meet Me in My Dream” and the defiantly homoerotic “I’ve Never Seen Your Face”) produced by the Grid bear up far better.
Recorded at London’s Royal Albert Hall in September 1992, 12 Years of Tears boils down a two-and-a-half- hour show — featuring dancers, a full band and orchestra — to a single fourteen-song CD. Although Almond takes a while to get up to speed (his notoriously dodgy pitch is especially flat on “Champagne” and the musicians on “Tears Run Rings” sound canned), the momentum never sags once he’s up and running, revisiting tunes from his entire repertoire. The album’s high point (and one of Almond’s finest moments ever) is his poignant reading of Charles Aznavour’s “What Makes a Man,” a ballad sung from the point of view of a transvestite.
Almond abruptly changed tack once more for his next release. Absinthe, an attempt (aided by translator Paul Buck) to affect the French chanson tradition in English, began life as early as 1986 (five of the tracks feature Almond’s previous ensemble, La Magia). The finished project is ambitious in scope and difficult for the untrained ear to digest, but ultimately rewarding both as pure entertainment and from a musicological standpoint. A raucous, bawdy “Undress Me (Déshabillez-Moi),” a staple for Juliette Gréco (the album’s primary muse), and the wistful “Lost Paradise (Le Paradis Perdu)” are especially noteworthy.
Almond released three diverse singles in 1995: “Adored and Explored” introduces elements of techno, coupled with harmonica by David Johansen; “The Idol” is a Gary Glitter- style stomp about the nature of fame; and “Child Star” is a sweeping ballad worthy of Shirley Bassey. Those songs, along with a new single (“Out There”), the trip-hoppy “Sweet Assassin” and 11 other cuts, make up 1996’s Fantastic Star.
Almond was seriously injured in a 2004 motorcycle accident but recovered.