The Associates – Sulk (40th Anniversary Edition)
The Partners – Bouder
Fans of The Associates are in for a treat with the 40e anniversary editions of Sulk. With a deluxe version available offering a cornucopia of additional tracks on three CDs. If we trust this critics’ experience, listening to this most divine album will once again rekindle your love for this most unique group. It sounds as good today as it did 40 years ago.
After creating the blueprint and setting the bar high with Fourth Drawer Down, Sulk’s release was a revelation. From Fourth Drawer Down to Top Drawer, Sulk is an album like no other before it, and one whose likes will never be heard again.
Intrigue and delight
The Associates are a band that were, and are, hard to define or categorize, dipping a toe into post punk, experimenting with electronics and a variety of weird and wonderful instruments, some of their songs dripping with addictive pop hooks, while others border on melancholic torch songs and the avant-garde. The bands appeal extended to a wide range of my peers in a variety of subcultures from my youth, from punks to goths to pop music fans, their appeal was universal having created a band that has intrigued and delighted in equal measure.
What can be said about The Associates, and Sulk in particular, that hasn’t been said before? There have been forty years of praise for Sulk, most of them better and more eloquent than I could ever hope to equal. Sulk’s music and songs speak for themselves. There are no words that can adequately describe the band’s sound on this record. Much has been made of the late great Dundonian Billy MacKenzie who had the voice of an angel and a vocal range that defies description, like an instrument in its own right, his voice demonstrated unique and varied textures ranging from deep, rich and mysterious to soaring. high tenor that no one on earth can recreate, no matter how hard they want to try. Billy MacKenzie. They broke the mold after him.
But to say that Sulk was pretty much the voice of Billy MacKenzie would be doing a huge disservice, especially to co-conspirator/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist that is the multi-talented Alan Rankine, as well as bassist and drummer respectively Michael Dempsey and John Murphy. . The song arrangements are incredibly otherworldly in some cases, blending weird and amazing sounds and with experimental instrumentation abounding throughout the ten tracks. As if to prove my point, the album offers two instrumental tracks to end the album. The all-consuming Arrogance Gave Him Up, delivering a shimmering intro hinting at what’s to come while displaying an assured confidence that what Sulk was about to serve up was something truly special, something never heard before, something that deserved the full attention of the listeners. that shines is gold.
Then there’s the closer album, Nothing In Something Particular, a string-laden work of genius that was the instrumental version of the final single 18 Carat Love Affair, a soulful sound almost intentionally leaving the listener in suspense as to what which was to follow. .
Between these two glorious instrumentals were seven stunning original compositions and a jaw-dropping version of Gloomy Sunday, too prescient a choice considering the fate that was ultimately to befall the sweet, soft-spoken singer.
No arrives with a flurry of experimental noise before revealing itself to be an expansive cinematic piece that could have been the soundtrack to any Cold War film. While the almost sinister electronic sound of Bap De La Bap accompanies lyrics that, like many of MacKenzie’s lyrics, are obscure, even disturbing in nature, leaving it up to the listener to make up their own minds about the ultimate meaning of the song. The ambiguity of MacKenzie’s lyrics is something that really drew me to the band, and one of the factors that still keeps me engaged to this day. The apparent loosening of meaning allows me to read my own messages in the songs according to my mood.
The aforementioned Gloomy Sunday takes the song, covered by many but arguably made most famous by Billie Holiday, and turns it into an Associates standard. There is no point in taking a song and reproducing the original. By the time MacKenzie and Rankine are done, it’s very much an Associates song. The fact that the song was originally known as The Hungarian Suicide Song is the sadly prescient nature of the track.
Nude Spoons is incredibly manic. A delirious and addictive odyssey, the instruments moan and scream as MacKenzie draws you into his surreal world with his increasingly hysterically passionate high-pitched voice as he sings the chorus. A song apparently influenced by a trip fueled by drugs.
Twanging bass has you toe tapping right off the bat on the seductive and addictive Skipping, a song that only increases in intensity the longer you listen, with Billy unleashing the true depths of his warm brogue. Is this the intensity you are looking for? Soon comes the dark theater of It’s Better This Way, a haunting goth almost like a one-piece juggernaut, Billy’s histrionic vocal adding fervent passion.
As ambiguous as they are, I know what I choose to read in the lyrics of Party Fears Two. In my humble opinion, there is no better single. Everything about this song pierced me, from the very first time I heard it and still does today. Right off the bat, this experimental piano intro has you wondering how the hell Alan Rankine made that heavenly sound, through the cryptic lyrics that have you imagining all sorts of scenarios before deciding what YOU want the song to mean to you. , to screaming keyboards and sublime bass underpinnings that envelop you in their hypnotic charm and of course MacKenzie’s vocals reaching unassailable places that other singers can only dream of. Everything about Party Fears Two is absolute perfection.
And you still have Club Country to hit you! The penultimate song on this most unique album has another classic intro, synthesized strings and a relentless backbeat soon layered over a lush combination of keyboards, bass and matching electronics, if it weren’t for Party Fears Two, this might be the most perfect pop song of all time. A slightly less ambiguous lyric, still with plenty of obscure/obtuse references, but seemingly a condemnation of elitist classes with its soaring classic chorus giving off a darkly dystopian message.
Unique and striking
I’ve often struggled with the often asked question of naming your top 10 albums of all time, as it can change from day to day depending on my mood. However, listening to this extraordinarily unique and gripping album time and time again over the past few weeks, I’ve decided that not only should this album always be in this top ten, but in fact, if I had to choose just one album that I would had listened to for the rest of my life, it would be hard to see past Sulk.
For those with a bit more cash in their pockets, there’s the deluxe box set which collects alternate versions of the album’s tracks, off-album songs, demos and live versions. If you’re wondering if these extras are worth it, my advice is a resounding YES! Particular highlights are a radically different and more stripped down early version of Party Fears Two, called Never Will, with an entirely different chorus and lyric “If I start to believe you, I’ll do what atheists do” giving a whole new meaning to the song, certainly for me.
In addition, a more primitive version of Club Country, an intensely loud alternative version of And Then I Read a Book, the several very different versions of Its Better This Way, of course, the full version of 18 Carat Love Affair and the incredible Love Hangover. If there is a cure for this, I don’t want it…
The Peel Sessions are worth the purchase price, and the songs from the live versions give a completely different depth and texture to the songs. I’ve said before that on some box set releases with additional tracks, some of them should have been left alone. That’s not the case here, go through all the extras here and you’ll be begging for more.
Too much of a good thing?
One last thought. Can you get too much of a good thing? Judging by the number of times I’ve listened to (a variety of) versions of the “most perfect pop single of all time”™ Party Fears Two, the answer is absolutely no. How can you get tired of listening to this slice of pure pop perfection?
If you’re a die-hard Associates fan or have never dipped your toe in water before, buy this album. I would hate to think that there are people on this planet who have never known Sulk. They don’t really know what they’re missing.
All the words of Neil Hodge. More of Neil’s writings on Louder Than War can be found in his author’s archives. You can also find Neil online at his blog legingerquiff.