Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sulk - Associates

Some people can't help telling you what to do, it seems to be a compulsion. Luckily some people completely ignore what people tell them and go ahead and do what they want anyway and it is in this spirit that we are fortunate to have 'Sulk' the third album, and, I would say, masterpiece, from the Associates. Fuelled by all sorts of craziness and excess and experimentation, it mesmerises with its spirit of inventiveness and moments of high drama, Billy Mackenzie's amazing vocal acrobatics elegantly served by the assortment of melodies conjured up by Alan Rankine. One of my friends called this album 'depressing' however it is impossible to take it all too seriously considering the mischevious and playful nature of the pair; consider their nonchalent appearances on the sacred Top of the Pops - one time Alan fed the audience with a chocolate guitar from Harrods whilst on their first appearance Billy Mackenzie refused to look into the cameras and looked at himself on the monitors or gazed off into the distance instead. Neither would this album be with us had the boys not spent copious amounts of record company money, who were only ready enough to give it to them. And all this occurred during that supposedly most conformist and embarrassing of periods, the 80s! And whilst 'Sulk' in many ways is an album born of its moment, sometimes the squelchy synthesisers and muddy production threaten to date it, listening to it now with 21st century ears I am continually amazed by how extraordinary and completely unique it is. That this album was liked by the record buying public of the time is even more heartening, spawning three hit singles for the band. However it was to be a fleeting success, Mackenzie and Rankine afterwards split and anyone reading into their later history would be disappointed to see that two obviously talented individuals did not really benefit from their success.

Describing it and sticking 'Sulk' into a convenient genre box is thankfully impossible. I have seen it described as a pop album with a dark heart, it is also very playful in the way the vocals and melody dance around each one another and the lyrics are willfully opaque. Yet it cannot shake the melancholy which clings to it. Beginning with quite a jaunty instrumental 'Arrogance gave him up' this in no way prepares you for the first song proper, 'No' a harrowing dirge where Billy sings about tearing his hair out by the roots and biting his nails down 'to the quick / worrying myself sick about you.' You start to wonder what you have let yourself in for when pianos clatter away to themselves in the background. It's the equivalent to an Edgar Allan Poe story made sound (in 'And then I read a book' Billy sings about dreaming his teeth falling out, shades here of 'Berenice').

'Bap de la bap' should by all rights be completely wrong - a nonsense lyric laid over a racket of drums and synth which I can only equate to the feeling you might get if sucked into a washing machine and spun about by forces you don't understand. I love the sound of dread it creates through the lyrics about the mysterious 'bap de la bap' which 'follows you around... it splutters and it coughs.' The relentlessly downbeat 'Gloomy Sunday' is less entertaining, a cover of a classic which is supposed to have inspired hundreds of suicides however this is possibly because it is not such a good song rather than it celebrating suicide in any way. The only thing I like is the way the melody contradicts the vocals by being strangely upbeat.

Then arrives an uninterrupted series of songs which never fail to sweep me away with their warped magnificance. 'Nude spoons' is enjoyable for its vocal acrobatics of 'nude spoons euphoria' and you cannot help but be swept away with the hysteria as Billy Mackenzie sings about wanting to hide things away in the ground only to wonder why things are buried in the first place (which as a museum studies student is the contradiction we often face); 'Skipping' continues the intensity and contains some of the album's most audaciously unintelligible lyrics. It is hard not to be carried along with the emotion spilling out all over the place. Here life is invested with high drama and it sounds so deadly serious although blantantly it can't be, can it?

'It's better this way' is cold and ruthless in its efficiency - 'you hold out your hand, I draw mine away / I was once in touch now I've nothing to say'- yet somehow captures that horrible awkwardness which makes life so messy after a break-up. 'Party fears two' has to be one of the best (and strangest) pop songs ever recorded, melancholic and upbeat in equal measure, the Billy Mackenzie's voice meandering and finally disappearring altogether into the higher atmosphere. 'Club Country' is another contender for the best pop song ever recorded - a frentically charged romp which I could happy listen to everyday for the rest of my life. Everything is perfect, the Spanish-tinged melody, Billy's slightly disturbing croon, the off-kilter and manic synths of the chorus, the ingeniousness of the lyrics which are not afraid to use words such as 'therein', 'soldered' and 'refrigeration.' They are clearly having a laugh it is all so pretentious but the beauty of the song shines through the archness and convinces you to forgive them anything, just as I suspect Billy's dimpled smile endeared him to many.

Ha I am clearly writing an essay about this album and still I am only half way through the songs! Lets continue swiftly; after Club country's magnificance comes to an abrupt halt, 'nothinginsomethingparticular' appears in its jarring upbeatness and all the better for it. I believe this was the last song on the original UK 80s version of the album (there are so many versions floating around I get confused) and so it works well, that you have travelled musically in a circle through almost every emotion you can think of. On the most recent remastered version of 'Sulk' however are a number of additional songs which were not included in the original version, including the double a side '18 carat love affair' / 'love hangover' two songs which are so incongruous to what has gone on before that you wonder if you are listening to the same band! '18 carat love affair' is silly cabaret however just about gets away with it and 'Love hangover' - the Associates do Diana Ross with surprisingly entertaining results. Back to the bizarre lyrics fetish is 'Ulcragyceptimol' where Billy sounds like he's singing to his whippets, although 'be a friend put him down' brings a sinister turn. 'And then I read a book' is the most claustrophobic offering here, detailing a breakdown of some sort which makes for uncomfortable listening. Relieving the tension is 'Australia', a blast, I dare say it, of optimism, continuing with a pleasant (if forgettable) instrumental named after men's hair dye, 'Grecian 2000', and a stripped down version of 'It's better this way.' 'The room we sat in before' not only reveals the stunning simplicity at the heart of the songs beneath all the madness and posturising but the wonder of the voice that Billy Mackenzie has.

This is a fantastic album, very deserved of all hyperbolic praise it recieves. 'Sulk' is one of the '1000 albums to listen to before you die' as suggested by the Guardian:,,2211598,00.html (Look under A)

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