Stunning ten-disc career survey from pop’s dark star
He’s been through a lot, has Marc Almond. For many he’ll always be the voice of “Tainted Love”, the Gloria Jones song his duo with Dave Ball, Soft Cell, remade in needlepoint vision in the early 1980s; the excesses of that decade, and their after-effects, seem to have scored, or scarred, much of Almond’s subsequent life. And while he’s flirted with pop stardom a number of times, including his Number One duet with Gene Pitney on “Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart”, he’s always seemed more comfortable singing from a psychological space somewhere between the mainstream and the margins.
It’s a life lived fully, though, even as, at its most extreme – his motorbike accident in 2004, for instance – it’s had Almond near death. Moments like this have left him with a heightened understanding of his own mortality, from all accounts: but then again, our construction of identity, and its intimate relation with our grasp on mortality, has always informed Almond’s most potent songs. Trials Of Eyeliner makes that clear, monstering together a wildly varied 37-year career into a ten-disc collection that seems underscored by one question: how to truly live the self?
Trials Of Eyeliner is a boxset in three movements. For the populist, there are three discs compiling most of Almond’s singles. Scrolling through these discs, you’re constantly reminded of the power the pop single once had to seduce. Those early Soft Cell singles, for example, are still engagingly weird. From the haunted claustrophobia of “Bedsitter” to the cosseted sigh that is “Torch”, the duo of Almond and Ball made synth-pop an article of faith, where for many of their peers it was simply a canny career move. With Soft Cell, there was always a sting at the end of each tale, or in the case of “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”, one long string of remorse.
Almond’s lyrics are at their most savage here, embracing a kind of lover’s hysteria – “Take a look at my face for the last time/I never knew you, you never knew me” – while exposing the truth that roils under the many compacts we make to sustain workaday life: “Under the deep red light, I can see the make-up sliding down”. Urban, bedsit melodramas: Soft Cell’s songs often played out that way, with Almond’s knack for capturing the concealed weirdness of daily life in a flipped couplet one of the duo’s most unlikely gifts. It was the balance of the perverse with the plain speaking that made Soft Cell so confusing: for every “Sex Dwarf”, a “Bedsitter”; for every tableau of sex and sleaze, a broken heart or agoraphobic episode.
If there’s a psychological shift when Almond starts recording with Marc & The Mambas, who released two stunning albums across 1982 and 1983, it’s to do with being unshackled from pop stardom’s chains, and allowing his collaborative drive full reign. Torment & Toreros, in particular, still startles, and Almond selects a number of heart-in-mouth songs from it as part of the four-disc self-curated career history that opens Trials Of Eyeliner. It’s on these discs that we get a real sense of the artist that Marc Almond wants us to know and remember. There can’t help but be a bit of l’esprit de l’escalier to these four discs – Almond reminding us of the things he wishes he’d said louder, back in the day – but it also traces the development of a voice, and the keen honing of an aesthetic, one that allows for multiplicity while retaining its central characteristics.
Torment & Toreros is represented here by “Torment”, the hyperactive swoon of “A Million Manias”, and the unforgiving down-and-out’s lament that is “Catch A Fallen Star”. As Trials Of Eyeliner moves through Almond’s string of luxurious, increasingly voluptuous 1980s albums, mostly recorded with his group The Willing Sinners, his voice gets stronger and stronger, the songs yet more gorgeous: 1985’s “I Who Never” is delirious, string-swept pop; “Mother Fist”, from a few years hence, is positively torrid, Almond fully embracing his Europhilic sensibilities – more warped cabaret.
Just as significant, though, is Almond’s inclusion of a cover of Scott Walker’s “Big Louise”, from the first, untitled Marc & The Mambas album. Here, Almond’s nodding to one of his precursors, well before Walker’s mythos as ‘last living modernist songwriter’ afforded him legendary status. It was also one of the first inklings that Almond’s subsequent career would, in many ways, be constructed as a knowing bricolage of the decadent, sensualist singers and writers who preceded him: he’s built an alternate universe where Truman Capote, Nico, Jacques Brel, Marc Bolan, Gérard de Nerval and John Rechy are all in close consort.
It’s in many ways a motley crew, but Almond’s breadth of vision has always been one of his strongest suits. Looking over the flux of cooperation that characterises much of Almond’s career, it’s hard to think of another artist given such creative licence, with such aesthetic voracity. One of Trials Of Eyeliner’s triumphs is that it finally places this aspect of his career in its full context, and many of Almond’s most surprising and seductive collaborations can be found in the boxset’s final three discs, which are a gorgeous grab bag of rarities and unreleased material.
Sometimes, Almond’s fellow thinkers are from decades or centuries past, the singer communing with the spirits of queered and marginal writers from history: see “Body Unknown”, from perhaps his darkest record, “A Violent Silence”, an EP of songs for theorist and eroticist Georges Bataille. Sometimes, the history is more recent, the connection more playful, as with Almond’s cover of “Teenage Dream” with T.Rexstasy, Tony Visconti & The Dirty Pretty Strings: great fun, and a reminder that glam rock provided the glitter and glimmer that got Almond out of suburban tedium and into pop’s land of possibility.
But one of the most moving moments on Trials Of Eyeliner is Almond’s cover of Peter Hammill’s “Vision”. Originally from Hammill’s debut solo album, 1971’s Fool’s Mate, “Vision” is one of his most lasting love songs, and Almond takes it for its word. The performance here, accompanied on piano by Martin Watkins and recorded live at Royal Albert Hall, grasps the flame and fever of love while recognising the loved as a projection of the self, the ideal made by the lover’s longing. It’s an emotional state Almond often circles back to: it’s not comfortable, exactly, but it is inescapable. And it answers that question – how do you live the self? – with brutal economy: through compassion and empathy, while understanding that, at the end of the day, we are always, somehow, strangers both to others, and to ourselves.
EXTRAS 8/10: Hardcover book with interview and essay; 18 unreleased songs.
What would your expectations have been when starting out with Soft Cell – how would that person have felt about the career profiled in Trials Of Eyeliner?
Even though I was an obsessed music fan from a very early age and was in my first local band aged 17 playing rock and hits of the day, I thought my career would take me in a different direction – art and [i]experimental[/i] theatre. I would never have dreamed that I would have become a pop star, appeared on Top Of The Pops, had two Number Ones and had a successful musical career, still going strong after 35 years. I would have laughed off the idea. The me then would have been a bit in awe of the person I am now. I still think of myself as someone in the third person, ‘that other person’. I don’t take anything for granted.
What were you looking for when you pulled together the first four discs of Trials Of Eyeliner? Did the process reveal or unveil anything about you that you’d not previously clearly understood?
I wanted to show the story of my life in music and for people to follow that journey from bedroom recorded experimental songs to high production. I tried to give each of the history discs a flow and thematic feel… To show how I’d progressed as a singer, songwriter and musician as well as curator of song. It was a revelation to me, as I rarely listen back to my albums, what a great body of work I’d accumulated, and so much to be proud of.
The singles selection of the box also reinforces what a great singles artist you are. It’s an artform that’s lost now.
I’ve always loved singles and felt them to be lovely things: when you get it right, [they’re] three and a half minutes of musical perfection, where emotion is conveyed and all that needs to be said is simply said. A moment that sums up a moment in your life, a memory of an occasion, [to] ignite your dreams, soothe your heartaches or just something simply to dance to. I learned putting the collection together that many of my singles had been over-long and over-indulgent; when I snipped away and made edits to allow the tracks to fit the CD, I ended up in many cases with a better single, like it should have been in the beginning. Better late than never. I hope the art form of the short radio song never dies.
You’re drawn to voices from the margins, or voices that sing of the margins: your work with groups like Coil, but also your embrace of figures like Jacques Brel, Vadim Kozin…
I’m drawn to artists and singers that are against the grain, outsiders if you like. For me, a singer I listen to and love has to be someone who has lived something of a life to make the songs they sing believable. Brel wrote about things that others of the time [dared] not: paradoxically his songs have an abrasive and guttural romance. He inspired me as he had inspired Bowie, Alex Harvey and Scott Walker; other artists that I felt were against the grain. Russian singer Vadim Kozin was a survivor, however damaged, by Stalin’s purges. The songs he sang take on a deeper resonance through his experiences. Mahalia Jackson sang, “I’m gonna live the life I sing about in my songs” and I think that is exactly what a singer should do.
One of the discs opens with a beautiful selection of songs from Heart On Snow, your album of traditional Russian songs. You recorded and performed with some other great singers – Lyudmila Zykina, Alla Bayanova.
Working on Heart On Snow and Orpheus In Exile [another album of Russian folk songs] were the greatest experiences of my musical life. I was privileged to work on these records and to experience much of real life in Russia away from the tourist path. Two great and polemically different, formidable ladies from the Soviet era of song were my tutors: Bayanova tutoring me in singing the Russian ‘romances’ and Zykina, the Queen of Russian folk music, allowing me to use her personal orchestra and studio (as well as making me soup). Both ladies are sadly no longer with us but I was lucky enough to sing on enormous Russian stages with them. I learned so much about music and myself making these difficult records, what I could be capable of. I’m still learning.
You were drawn back to recording original material for 2015’s The Velvet Trail, after stating that you weren’t going to do so post-Varieté…
After Varieté I felt creatively drained. I didn’t think I would stop writing songs altogether but they would be few and far between and certainly not a complete album of original songs. I just lost the love of songwriting, and besides I had always loved singing the songs of others. It was really looking back, me in danger of slipping into an easy comfort zone. The chance to work with Tony Visconti re-fuelled my love for writing and making a pop record again. Around the same time I started a musical dialogue with LA-based producer and writer Chris Braide. He sent me a bunch of tunes and each one sounded like a great song. We wrote and recorded The Velvet Trail together. I still have a bit of a pop star in my heart…
INTERVIEW: JON DALE
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