The sound of Soft Cell’s iconic and fabulous Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret has crawled its way, like a dirty old man in a Soho fleapit, into the hearts, minds and pants of our great nation. Everybody’s heard their cover of ‘Tainted Love’, swooned to ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ and probably have a soft (or hard spot) for lots of other gems on that album. NSEC is the people’s Soft Cell. The Art of Falling Apart is the freaks’ Soft Cell album, and it’s a belter. I’m not going to go all contrary and rave over the second album at the expense of the first – they’re both great LPs, but nothing on their debut hits me the same way ‘Numbers’ from album #2 does. What a song. What a tune. Seriously, you know when you hear a song and you’re all like, where has this been all my life? It’s definitely my favourite song by this brilliant band, from an album that was just too dark and downbeat to really catch fire, but one that has its own cult following.
Right from the off, it feels…off. A couple of squidgy bass notes, and then the drum beat comes in askance and suddenly we’re descending underground. Seriously, that opening synth sounds like the lift doors to some dungeon closing in on us. Maybe it’s the same sex dungeon we visited in ‘Sex Dwarf’ from the first album, and musically this is just as sexy, queasy, filthy a song. Marc Almond and David Ball have honed their perverted, claustrophobically erotic sound to a horny T here, but the lyrics are devastatingly downbeat, the numbers of the title being the countless run of lovers (‘you never know their names/because names make a person real and there’s no real people in these games‘) our narrator has been through and disposed with, he himself increasingly burned out, and fucked-up. By the end of the song, even the narrator has become a number all of his own, just another throwaway screw (‘body 1, body 2, body 3, body 4…‘). Where did love go wrong, Marc sings, but unlike when a similar question was posed in the title of their dreamy lounge cover of ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’, the effect here is hollowed-out and ruined. It could also be suggested that by the end of the song the numbers end up representing statistics of victims of AIDS, which had become a recognised virus by the time this song had been released.
Such lyrical darkness was a far cry from the romanticism of the first album, but the music was just as – maybe even more so – overwhelmingly beguiling than before, so much that it’s easy for to focus on just that element, especially when you’ve got an astonishing instrumental section like the one around halfway through, where a lonely siren wail calls out unaswered through sleazy streets and we slip further and further downwards until all of a sudden a brilliantly unexpected marimba and birdsong at around the 2:08 mark adds even more exotic atmosphere to an already heated, sweaty and hazy soundscape.
It’s a tremendously atmospheric song, but I’ve only talked about the album version, which clocks in just under five minutes. The 12” single release is twice that length – however, I don’t like the sparser, less clammy sound of the extended cut. It’s like layers of sleaze and smoke have been removed from the album mix, but nevertheless there are loads of pleasurable moments that aren’t present on the LP cut where Ball has a ball breaking down key moments and letting them linger for longer. Overall though it’s not as devastating a strike as the album incarnation, which is a shame as Soft Cell’s twelve-inch mixes are usually better than their shorter versions, but in the case of ‘Numbers’, less is more. Go for the album version, and the album itself, which unfortunately came out at a time when pop was only getting brighter, brasher and pulling itself together. Certainly not falling apart.
Watch the video here: Soft Cell: Numbers video
PS: For a fantastic look at Soft Cell’s The Art of Falling Apart album in depth, check this article out here.