Marc Almond has always lurked in the shadows, waxing poetic about dark fantasies and brooding over bittersweet affairs. So it comes as something of a shock to hear “Glorious,” the first single from his new Blue Star/XIII Bis Records album, “Stranger Things.” The song is so bright that it sounds as though Almond has finally stepped into the sunlight, as he sings: “Feelings wider than the sky/Surround me on all sides.”
“‘Glorious’ is a hymn about inspiration and optimism,” Almond says. “People often expect me to come up with something darker. The last album [1999’s “Open All Night,” on Instinct] was more downbeat, so I wanted to start this one with a more uplifting song, something that would surprise people.”
The single, released June 19 across most of Europe, will be released July 2 in the U.K. Mark Langthorne — Almond’s U.K. manager, working with 17.59 Management in London — says he is targeting “serious, musician-oriented radio, rather than pop,” although he admits that ” ‘Glorious’ seems to cross over to quite a few radio types.” Almond will make a range of British TV appearances in July to promote the single, including such shows as BBC’s “Top of the Pops” and VH1’s “Talk Music.”
Almond’s U.S. manager, Vicki Wickham of New York-based Take Out Productions, says that no singles will be released to American radio until next year because “Stranger Things” — released June 18 in Europe — has no American distributor yet.
Almond says, “I lost out for years because my management were just interested in promoting me as a European artist, and America got neglected.” But he hopes his new team of Langthorne and Wickham can change that situation. “There’s a lot of lost ground to catch up. I never set my sights on selling millions of records, but it would be nice to have them available there.”
Almond works with a new producer/arranger on “Stranger Things”: Johann Johannson from Iceland. Johannson had created experimental pop for the group Luke, mixing strings, samples, and electronic orchestration. Almond calls Johannson “a kindred spirit” musically; the two co-wrote many songs, and Almond lifted two songs for the album — “Come Out” and “Love in the Time of Science” — from an “esoteric” set that Johannson had written for Icelandic group Dip.
Working with a “very strict” producer, Almond says, gave “Stranger Things” “a musical coherence” that some of his earlier efforts eschewed. Arrangements are soaring and melodramatic — as Almond always is — but the sound finds a middle ground between the spare gothic synth-pop of “Open All Night” and the orchestral grandeur of 1991’s “Tenement Symphony” (Sire/Reprise).
“I’ve found my direction more clearly,” Almond explains. “I’ve become a more competent singer and songwriter. That’s something that’s come with time.”
Almond’s career spans 20 years, from his days as the singer for new wave duo Soft Cell through a series of brief collaborations and a string of solo releases.
In the U.S., Langthorne says, Almond has always maintained “underground status.” His only solo single to chart was “Tears Run Rings,” which peaked at No. 67 on The Billboard Hot 100 in February 1989, from his Capitol album, “The Stars We Are” — which was his only solo set to hit The Billboard 200, hitting No. 147 the same month.
Even when Soft Cell had a series of hit singles during the early ’80s, the duo only sent one single to the American singles charts: “Tainted Love,” which hit No. 8 in May 1982. So despite a successful European career, Almond is frequently perceived as a one-hit wonder stateside — something he has recently learned to handle.
“‘Tainted Love’ has been both a curse and a blessing,” Almond says. “There have been times I’ve wanted to run away from it, but I’ve learned to embrace and accept it. If it can open new doors for me, that’s fine.”
One new door that’s opening is actually an old one. After Soft Cell broke up in 1984, Almond went solo, and former bandmate Dave Ball found success as a producer and as a musician with techno act Grid. But now that they’ve found success apart, Almond and Ball are getting back together.
“Both of us had intended at some point to do a Soft Cell project, but the fear of raising old ghosts was daunting,” Almond says. But in March, the duo played three dates at a new London venue, Ocean, “as an experiment to see how people would react.” And the reaction was tremendous: “Man and machine in perfect harmony,” London’s Evening Standard raved in a concert review.
With the experiment a success, a reunited Soft Cell is going on the road — to America. The Wotapalava gay-themed music festival is a 17-date amphitheater tour starting July 13 in Miami and ending Aug. 11 in Houston, covering such cities as New York, San Francisco, and Detroit along the way. Soft Cell will appear on the bill alongside the pair that, in many ways, picked up where they left off: the Pet Shop Boys.
“It’s a great thing to get the two most influential British synthesizer duos on the same bill,” Almond says. Rufus Wainwright and Magnetic Fields are also part of the Wotapalava line-up.
There are no plans for Almond to play solo dates to push “Stranger Things” during Soft Cell’s Wotapalava tour. Still, renewed interest in Soft Cell may help Almond land an American license for the album, says Wickham, who is currently looking for a label to release the album stateside in early 2002. “Anything that keeps Marc’s name out there helps.”
After Wotapalava, Almond will play European solo dates in September. Then Soft Cell will tour the U.K. in October, to coincide with a Universal release there of a greatest-hits package containing new remixes. After that, the group will finish up an album of new material for release in 2002 — Soft Cell’s first new set since Sire/Warner Bros.’ “This Last Night in Sodom” in 1984.
Almond and Ball will produce the as-yet-untitled album. They’re currently in negotiations to land a label for the project, which will include a few new songs they’ll play live on tour: “Monoculture,” “Divided Souls,” and “Last Chance.”
“I don’t ever want to do Soft Cell permanently again. I like the freedom of being solo,” Almond says. “But it’d be nice for a while.”
Reuniting Soft Cell isn’t a step backward “as long as we have something new to perform,” Almond explains. “I’m wary of being part of the whole retro ’80s revival. I’d find it very unrewarding to only be playing my old hits. But I’m happy to do older stuff as long as there’s newer stuff to go with it. I don’t mind people having their nostalgia bit. I’m proud of those old songs.”