Review Summary: One of the most unique acts in early 80s synth-pop, Soft Cell had a flair for creating sleazy, sinful slices of dark electronic music. If all you’ve heard is 'Tainted Love' then you’re really missing out.
Soft Cell has to be one of the most surprising chart successes in pop music. The British duo comprised of vocalist Marc Almond and multi-instrumentalist Dave Ball may have rocketed to number one in several countries with their unique cover of 'Tainted Love', but any estimations that aforementioned hit was all the sleazy synth boys had to offer, is undeniably wrong. Because 'Tainted Love' was so huge (and rightfully so, its one of the standout hit singles from the entire 80s) it unfortunately overshadowed their debut, and many missed the point of Soft Cell, presuming they were just another one hit wonder in the last great singles decade. But if said people were to listen to 'Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret', they’d be shocked in almost equal amounts of surprise and awe.
'Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret' at first sounds like an album to be played in dingy sex clubs, in topless bars - the perfect soundtrack to a midnight drive through a red light district. Dave Ball seemed to have a knack for creating sleazy, dirty sounding synth. It may sound a little crass on paper but it really has to be heard for its charm to seep in. Take 'Sex Dwarf' for example, it has filthy plunges of synth and so many layers of electronic sound effects that, even after several plays, listeners will still be hearing whip cracks and hilarious samples, they missed before. That’s exactly what its important to do with 'Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret': listen.
It would be crass and vulgar if it wasn’t self aware, but Almonds lyrics (each of which takes the form of a different character and tells a witty tale of urban debauchery) and Ball’s layered, dark synth and quirky sound effects are knowing of themselves. They revel in the boorishness, running wild with it to dramatic effect, undercutting any pretensions by self deprecation and self-awareness. 'Entertain Me' is a prime example - its lyrics describe failing to impress an audience ("Entertain me, I’m as blank as can be") matched to the sounds of a crowd chanting "off, off, off" resulting in a crystal-clear display of bitter humour and self-deprecation.
The album is unashamedly sleazy and that’s what makes it unique and charming; despite being a synth-pop album released in 1981 it still sounds distinctive. The opening track 'Frustration' sets the picture well, declaring that Soft Cell aren’t just simple, straight ahead synth poppers but rather, sinful dramatists. It begins with Almond screaming "fru…fru…fru…frustration" before Ball’s bizarre melody kicks in with a ticking, pulsing rhythm, ending in a chorus of guilty desires and confessions from Almond as he wails about wanting to "experiment with cocaine, LSD and set a bad, bad example".
The entire album carries on in a similar vein, each track dealing with a different character and indecent story married to suitably cheap and tacky synth from Ball, exemplified by tracks like 'Seedy Films' (about watching pornography in a theatre and "Getting to know" your neighbour). That’s what 'Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret' is all about - it’s a knowing, flamboyant display of sleaze, sin and indulgence, and genuinely doesn’t have single moment where a listener has a chance to drift off, whether or not he/she wants to. Whether you fall in love with the whole act or you’re just stunned by the bizarreness of it all, one thing’s for sure - you’ll be compelled and gripped right to the infectiously smutty end.