Thematically solid, but lacking diversity
Synth-pop duo Soft Cell has released their latest album, *Happiness Not Included. *Happiness Not Included is a twelve-track album that is Soft Cells’ fifth studio album release over their decades-long career, most known for their ’80s hit “Tainted Love.” This album is their first studio release in twenty years. Focusing on the theme of a dystopian future that has become our present, this album is both bleak and hopeful.
Kicking off with “Happy Happy Happy,” Soft Cell reflects on how they used to be more optimistic about the future, dreaming of new technologies, societal developments and other improvements. They dreamed of a world where everyone is happy all the time. But as they are now living in the future they used to dream of, they realize that it’s not what they imagined it to be. A very synth-pop, bouncy track, “Happy Happy Happy” opens up the album on an energetic, yet solemn note.
“Polaroid” continues with the reflection of the past, describing a 1981 encounter. It keeps up with the energetic synth-pop energy as well. Moving swiftly into “Bruises On All My Illusions,” this song starts off feeling a bit darker. It’s still a narrative lyrically, explaining how the American dream is an illusion. With big dreams, you’re often left penniless and without hope. It’s a song that focuses on dreams that have been tainted or abandoned, lyrically contrasting with the upbeat synth instrumentals.
“Purple Zone” features Pet Shop Boys, another iconic ’80s synth-pop duo. “Let’s get out of this life, I’m afraid of life” is repeated regularly throughout the track, a super vulnerable lyric. It gets lost in the synth melodies, the vulnerability is almost buried. Following this track is “Heart Like Chernobyl,” which is probably the grimmest track on the album. Opening with the lyric “Oh dear, I feel like North Korea,” the lyrics center around the dystopian and almost apocalyptic present we are living in.
Halfway through the album at track six, “Light Sleepers” is where things take a turn sonically. Instead of the bouncing synths we’ve gotten used to during the first five tracks, this song opens with a gentle piano melody. While a subtle synth line kicks in later, this song is the first true ballad on the tracklist. The title track “*Happiness Not Included” is next up, taking listeners out of the gentle piano and back into the pulsing world of synth-pop. The lyrics are observant and reflective, similar to other tracks.
“Nostalgia Machine” has a more prominent percussion line than the other tracks, and that makes it a stand-out track on the album. While not sonically straying from synth-pop, this one is more danceable than others. Next up is “Nighthawks,” which is the second-longest track on the album, sitting at five minutes and fourteen seconds. Definitely out of Soft Cell’s comfort zone, “Nighthawks” is barely synth-pop. While it’s respectable to try new things, it doesn’t land on this track.
“I’m Not a Friend of God” sounds like an Elton John/Gorillaz collaboration, it’s a bit more ominous than other songs on this record. It flows easily into “Tranquiliser,” another slower track that doesn’t fit into the synth-pop genre either. The album wraps up with “New Eden,” a hopeful ballad about leaving behind the past in hopes of finding a better place. This track is the longest at over six minutes.
While it’s great that Soft Cell released another body of work for the first time in twenty years, their commitment to the genre resulted in many of the tracks blending sonically and lyrically. Following a theme is one thing, but no diversity in lyrics is another. The songs where they strayed from synth-pop were interesting, but they didn’t work on this record. Overall there are some decent tracks, but as a body of work, there is room for improvement on *Happiness Not Included.