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Soft Cell ~ o2 Academy, Leeds, UK
“Forty years, and back where it all started!” Marc Almond calls to the rafters early on, arms aloft, dressed in all black and topped with ink-shaded aviators. He lowers his head, coyly grins. “Doesn’t that make you feel old?”
It’s been more than forty years since Soft Cell first emerged from Leeds Polytechnic to become one of synthpop’s most enduringly recognisable two-pieces – pithily slender vocalist Almond and initially moustachioed multi-instrumentalist Dave Ball – but for all intents and purposes, it is four decades since their nostalgic zenith, their deliciously-titled debut record Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret.
When the pair reunited in 2018 for a self-proclaimed farewell show, they apparently had every intent of following through – but the creative joy that surged forth leant itself to a new album, *Happiness Not Included, which goes some way to alleviating the more cynical concerns of this latest valedictory lap.
Returning to Leeds, at the city’s O2 Academy, they come carting a two-act show to further browbeat any staunch detractors into submission, delivering a career-encompassing performance that sees them rattle through around two-dozen songs. Not that they need to truly win anyone over; from the first sax break of opener Torch through the last lick of jittery encore Memorabilia, Almond – alternating between barstool-perched confessionalism and snake-hipped amativeness – has them eating out of the palm of his hand, while Ball resides at the back like a gentlemanly keyboard emperor, almost as watchable in his attentive methodology. The first half, broken from its latter stages by a short interval, mixes material old and new – the gothic judder of Martin sit neatly alongside pleasingly comparable new fare such as the black-bitten Heart Like Chernobyl – and with minimal additional instrumentation onstage, there is a refreshingly club-friendly feel to proceedings.
But it is Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret that naturally pulls the stronger response. For a song with which they are almost unequivocally synonymous with despite its cover version status, Tainted Love is dispatched with little in the way of fanfare, with the presence of deep-cut-loving diehards more covertly unveiled by the giddy reception handed down to the depraved rush of Sex Dwarf or the extended cut of Bedsitter. “This is a great city, and we owe so much to it,” Almond intones gracefully amid the soaring euphoric melancholy of Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, arguably their finest moment.
For the price of one album like this, Leeds owes them just as much, too.