Soft Cell fans, in North America at least, are generally split into two distinct categories: those who know the duo of singer Marc Almond and keyboardist Dave Ball for their mega-hit cover of the Northern Soul classic "Tainted Love" (meaning the majority), and those weirdos who got into the band in their post-"Tainted Love" phase, during which they perfected "the art of falling apart" (aptly, also the name of their second release). Among the latter small but devoted group, we can count Nine Inch Nails' mastermind Trent Reznor, who was so impressed by the proto-industrial electropunk nihilism of the band's third, and until now, final, release, 1984's This Last Night in Sodom, that he borrowed one of its song titles, "Mr. Self Destruct," for his own career-defining 1994 classic, The Downward Spiral.
Fast forward to 2002. With the "electroclash" back-to-basics electronic-pop music movement owing them a big debt (and, more generally, 1980s nostalgia in full swing), Soft Cell and the Zeitgeist are now in alignment. And so the duo have chosen to reunite. Yet those who come to Cruelty Without Beauty looking for the band to take up where they left off in 1984 will probably come away with mixed feelings. While lyrically, Almond does his best here to conjure up a vision of the West in chaotic decline possibly facing the same fate as Ancient Rome musically the band, rather than "falling apart," are ultra-together, positively Germanic in their precision and overall sense of sonic economy.
From the pulsing opener, "Darker Times," onward, Cruelty Without Beauty is the sound of Soft Cell reclaiming the musical territory they staked out in their 1981 hit debut, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, offering up hooky, dancefloor-oriented synthetic soul, now jacked up into a higher gear for the clublands of the new millennium. The band sounds ready to dance in the "post-9/11" flames as the West burns: "Am I being unrealistic/ To feel so nihilistic?" Almond asks in "Darker Times," and most of what follows indicates that the correct answer here is in the negative. Yet those expecting the more exploratory, risky emoting found on This Last Night in Sodom, or on early solo Almond albums such as Torment and Toreros, will soon find that the singer's response to his nihilistic feelings nearly two decades on is to take control rather than to lose it, to emotionally distance himself from the carnage rather than to wallow in it.
Take the album's first single, "Monoculture," which musically sounds like Kraftwerk after a few cups of espresso. Almond revels in layers of irony here that would have been anathema to the self-flagellating singer of Soft Cell circa 1984. As Ball cranks out the beats-per-minute, Almond laments the false choices offered in our postmodern, consumerist society, which recycles itself continually, substituting imitation for inspiration: "Over and over and over" the singer laments, "again and again and again . . . Everything that's old/ Is new again." Did I say irony? While Ball's synths parody the monotony of much current clubland electronica, Almond's critique here is made in a way that also implicates the reunited Soft Cell: Everything that's old is new again indeed!
Not all of Cruelty Without Beauty works on such a level of sophistication; when Almond isn't quite as inspired lyrically, Ball's musical settings can seem a tad too formulaic, as on "All Out Of Love," which sounds like catchy but generic electro-pop. Much better are the cuts where form and content mesh perfectly, such as the sinister "Le Grand Guignol," where Almond explores Western pop culture as a "theatre of the grotesque" to a sleazy bump 'n' grind rhythm. Here, both performer and spectator are equally implicated: "Aren't you glad the road to success/ Is littered with drugs and sex?" Almond whispers. "Say hello to the broken people." We nod and turn the channel to the next episode of The Osbournes.
Equally compelling is the surging "Desperate," featuring kinetic keyboard stylings from Ball that establish his credentials as the father of electroclash (one can imagine Peaches taking notes), and some fabulous black humor (a quality not previously associated with Soft Cell that is much in evidence throughout) from Almond, obviously relishing in the persona of the rock singer as whore: "I'll sing anything/ From rock to Music Hall" he offers. "See me in a magazine/ Or I'm not existing . . . I'll parody myself/ Just don't leave me on the shelf."
Overall, then, irony or no, there are more than enough moments of pure inspiration here to justify the return of Soft Cell, whose stripped-down approach leaves them sounding remarkably contemporary. "Do you think this party's ever gonna end?" Almond asks portentously on the album's thematic centerpiece, "Caligula Syndrome." Who's to say, really? One thing, however, is> clear: Soft Cell circa 2002 are ready and able to provide the musical accompaniment while the New Rome burns. And burns.