Visions of Excess is the title of a collection of essays by the late French writer, bibliophile, cultural critic/anthropologist, and pornographer Georges Bataille. Bataille's work has always been close to Marc Almond's heart, so much so that he's been part of a tribute gig to him released as The Violent Silence. Almond's work as a solo artist apart from Soft Cell has been so wide-ranging and abundant -- wildly careening between post-pop R&B, cabaret songs, electronics, classic and kitschy pop, glam, French chanson, disco, and more -- that it embodies the entire notion of "excess." That's far from a bad thing, and though he's missed the mark with his records from time to time, he's never done anything that would be remotely considered untrue to his vision. Each recording has been a snapshot of where Almond as an artist was at the time of any work's creation. Sure, this is a lot to say for a pop singer, but then Scott Walker and Jacques Brel were pop singers, too, as was Lotte Lenya in her native Germany before the Second World War, and it's from this tradition that Almond's work comes. Indeed, his life -- both aesthetic and everyday -- is the stuff of a collection of poems by Paul Verlaine or Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde or Laure, Bataille's gloriously infamous poet lover.
Stardom Road is more than just another collection of covers from Almond. He's done them before, but never like this. According to Almond -- whose last three studio recordings (1999's Open All Night, 2001's Stranger Things, and 2003's Heart on Snow) have been deeply focused, beautifully executed efforts -- this offering, his first since a motorcycle accident in 2004 that almost killed him, is a portrait of all of his major influences rolled into one, a musical biography of sources, as it were. And indeed, with tracks written by Charles Aznavour, David Bowie, Al Stewart, Bert Kaempfert, Bobby Darin, James Last, Sol Weinstein, and a few others, he's at least got chapter one down, to be sure. It's an ambitious sortie into the world of pop. Almond appears with everything from strings to full-on horn sections and orchestras as well as in some slightly smaller settings. There's a deeply moving duet with Antony Hegarty on Fran Landesman's classic early-'50s anthem "Ballad of the Sad Young Men," and with Sarah Cracknell on Westlake's "I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten," which is a slightly modern update of the original arrangement by Keith Mansfield. Then there's the nugget "Backstage (I'm Lonely)," with Jools Holland on piano and Kiki Dee and Anna Ross on backing vocals (and some additional lyrics by Almond).
These aren't merely name-check collabs for Almond. He put every ounce of inspiration into these performances. The arrangements in these tracks and a few others are top-notch, full and beautiful and gloriously overblown. But there's another side as well, such as his beautiful acoustic guitars, piano, drum kit, and strings reading of Aznavour's anthem "I Have Lived," in English. It's expressive, redemptive, and full of revelation. Indeed, Almond sings this one as if he's written it himself: "I'm an artist/I've never been a saint...." (For the uninitiated, along with Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Trenet, Léo Ferré, and of course Serge Gainsbourg, Aznavour is a bona fide hero of French culture.) The version of Darin's "Dream Lover" is a dark mirror image: a single electric guitar and programming are the backdrop of this cut, and if director David Lynch ever hears this he'll be signing Almond to sing on one of his soundtracks. It's an awesome interpretation of the song, and even Darin would be proud. Yep, there is a cover of Barry Ryan's "Kitsch" here, and of course Almond plays it up because what the tune expresses has been part and parcel of Almond's aesthetic from the word go: trash and treasure, the gutter and the palace, or perhaps the palace of the gutter.
Likewise, Al Stewart's "Bedsitter Images" and Bowie's "London Boys" offer different sides to the same story: the terminal outsider, whose deep loneliness leads him to dreams and visions of grandeur, longing, and the desire to be loved for what he is -- decadent, hopelessly out of step, and in pain. But Almond's no whiner; he celebrates his condition as an artist. There is a new song here, too -- an original called "Redeem Me (Beauty Will Redeem the World)," which sums up the artist, the person, and the various personas and rolls them into one. The words, delivery, and melody in all its swinging breezy gentleness need to be heard; it's an injustice to quote those lyrics out of that context. The set finally ends with Weinstein's "The Curtain Falls." Accompanied by Igor Outkine's accordion, strings, and a tuba, it is a beautiful, deeply moving, and warmly sad yet humorous sendoff into the silence. Almond's voice has never been less histrionic, yet more expressive; Stardom Road eclipses even Open All Night as his finest studio moment as a solo artist. ~ Thom Jurek