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Marc Almond - Varieté

Since Stardom Road, an album of cover versions that charted his life, Marc Almond has put in some fantastic vocal appearances on his more esoteric pursuits with Othon and Michael Cashmore. Marc Almond has already referred to Varieté as his swansong with regards to self-penned recordings. Drawing upon his colourful life and musical history, Varieté takes nostalgia as its major theme with a broad spectrum of songs from music hall, glam-stompers and intricate cabaret-pop, populated with outsiders and misfits. Though nostalgic, it continues Almond's predilection for dark, gloomy, melancholia that contrast with much of the arrangements on Varieté, which are light and subtle.

From the music hall singalong of the 'Intro', the opening track 'Bread and Circus' is a breezy upbeat number, carrying a trace of Russian influence in the use of clarinet, introducing the recurring clown motif that features throughout. Limber and emotive, his voice is in full flow on 'Nijinsky Heart', striving to reach heights over urgent strings and flamenco touches. Things slow down on the piano ballad, 'The Exhibitionist', capturing a vaudevillian spirit as he pays tribute to the "fabulous monsters" and "glamorous freaks" recalling the infamous sideshow acts (dog-face boy, alligator girl...) with a chorus that almost acts as leitmotif for his life: "ordinary is bad, strange is good".

'Trials Of Eyeliner' and 'Soho So Long' are particularly loaded with elements of Almond's life. The melancholic piano opening of 'Trials of Eyeliner' is reminiscent of Current 93 (it boasts an arrangement by Michael Cashmore) before it swells into an ensemble piece picking up on pivotal moments of Almond's outré life, symbolised by his love of wearing black eyeliner. Highly confessional, it's a beautiful moving track. Accompanied by piano and a rhythmic fast strum guitar 'Soho So Long' pays tribute to Almond's lost haunts, the sleazy clubs, drinking bars and the colourful characters that populated Soho (and as I write this the newspapers report the death of decadent-dandy Sebastian Horsley) and lit up any number of Soft Cell songs.

Both 'Lavender' and 'Sandboy' may be character-based but they are thoroughly introspective. 'Lavender' regales a tale of growing up gay, with references to Bowie, Mishima and Bogarde, while 'Sandboy' fondly recalls a long-gone idyllic childhood spent on Southport beach. It's melancholic aspect heightened by the mournful brass band. Bursting with optimism 'But Not Today' obliquely reflects on his near fatal motorcycle accident.

There are some real surprises here too: the beguiling 50's croon of 'It's All Going On' with bluesy harmonica, the folk of 'Cabaret Clown' and 'My Madness And I', the former complete with Hammond swirl while the latter features a wailing theremin. The title track is one of his glam-stompers, laced with latter-day Soft Cell electro beats, and topped off with strings and big band horns as it seeks out hedonistic pleasures.

There's an inherent sadness to 'Swan Song' as he sings "I've sung all the songs, Played out all the scenes". Yet with Almond the consummate performer, there's always time for one more... 'Sin Songs', featuring another Michael Cashmore arrangement, brings to mind music hall, lists the seven sins, revives the intro and contrary to the end he sings "Don't need no big band, don't need no orchestration" backed by, yes, you've guessed it a big band and orchestration. Contrary and contradictory it's as good as a send-off for Marc Almond as you're going to get.

With 16 tracks in total, there's a lot to Varieté. If you're lucky you can still pick up the special edition with another disc of seven acoustic tracks. On Varieté Marc Almond has once again found his true voice, tapping into a rich seam of music, without reverting to, or being forced to, take on today's sound. Varieté is the most rounded Almond self-penned album for quite some time and is one that's sure to figure highly in an already impressive discography. For more information go to www.marcalmond.co.uk or www.cherryred.co.uk