THE ASSOCIATES: SULK – ALBUM REAPPRAISAL
With the news that BMG are poised to re-release and remaster the Associates albums, it seemed like a perfect time for a reappraisal.
Previous album reappraisals I have written have tended to be attempts to draw attention to bands lesser known, more under-appreciated albums, but I’m going to go against my own grain and focus on their masterwork , 1982’s “Sulk”.
Sometimes bands most successful or famous albums are that for a reason and that can, on my opinion, most certainly be said of “Sulk”, which whilst sharing many elements with their other albums of the early 80’s period still remains largely like nothing that came before it – and there has been little like it since. Whilst “Sulk” features an undoubtedly talented group of musicians playing on it, the whole beating heart of it still lies with the multi-instrumental talents of Alan Rankine and the stunning multi-range voice of Billy Mackenzie, adorning the sleeve in a lush, rich setting which reflects the tone of the whole record, which is though consistent in this style seems to have a slight divide between a first half imbued with 80’s pop sensibilities, all be it in a truly unique manner, before taking a darker and distinctly more dramatic nearer the end.
Opening with “Better This Way,” an exemplary opener with an incredible swirling bassline and typically vocals which pull the listener right in instantly, this then gives way to one of the most uniquely wonderful singles of the 80’s, “Party Fears Two.” Comprised of oblique lyrics that initially seem like free verse but that pull into something more structured that reinforce the idea set by TS Eliot that perhaps free verse does not really exist, the full range of Mackenzie’s vocal skill turns it into something strangely touching. The classic first Top of the Pops performance of this single, with Mackenzie looking at himself in the monitors and smiling, shattering televisions mystique, has sealed its reputation as an 80’s classic. More pop gems follow; the boldly sweeping “Club Country” and the heartbreakingly sublime , “18 Carat Love Affair,” the latter a beautiful take on forbidden love which, with lines like “I told you not to meet me here/I can’t be seen/with you whispering in my ear/ I don’t mind holding hands but not in front of company” seems at face value to be about hiding infidelity but could just as easily be about trying to cover up a same-sex relationship. Given Mackenzie’s own, rarely talked about bisexuality this simply makes it all the more emotive.
The aforementioned darker, more dramatic turn that “Sulk” takes is best represented by my personal favourite track, “No,” a huge Gothic number which its almost impossible not to be impressed by; Rankine’s dramatic piano work complementing Mackenzie’s most epic vocals, it sounds as though it should be played within the depths of a huge castle hall or on the unswept checkerboard floor of a decaying Hollywood mansion; the lyrics rife with images of anxiety such as hair-pulling (at the roots, before planting the them in someones garden to wait for the shoots to grow -all a psychoanalysts dream) and biting nails to the quick with worry.
If there’s anything that signifies the change in tone between the first and second halves of the album though, its the two cover versions that grace it. One is a gleefully camp version of Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover,” which retains the glitzy disco feel of the original. The other is a powerfully revealing version of a song with one of the most talked about histories in music, Gloomy Sunday. Written in 1932 by Rezsco Seress, it was blamed for 18 suicides in Hungary. It was first recorded in the UK with English lyrics by Hal Kemp, with many other versions following (Billie Holliday’s 1942 version being the most famous and beautiful), and its reputation for being responsible for many suicides grew so much it was banned by the BBC in all forms for 66 years. The ban was in still in place when The Associates recorded their version on “Sulk” (it would be lifted twenty years later), so its certainly a bold choice of song. Its mournful lyrics are undeniably ones that would draw in the saddest of listeners (something more likely to be responsible for the songs history than any superstition, I believe), and its hard to imagine anyone of completely stable mind being able to fully communicate its suicidal tone. The Associates version has an extra sheen and aural layer to previous versions, but its power is intense and haunting. Mackenzie tragically took his own life in 1997, not only feeding the songs history but adding extra poignancy. “Sulk” – his final album with Rankine and thus as The Associates as we know them – would perhaps be his ultimate legacy, an album as multi-layered, stylish and at times eccentric as he was. In the grey gloom of the bleak 80’s landscape, “Sulk” was a ray of light which stands the test of time today.
Watch “No” from the album here:
All words by Amy Britton. Read more on her archive here or find her on Twitter as @amyjaybritton