Sulk: Associates’ intense little jewel
It begins with 3 minutes of what sounds like end credit music for an 80’s TV show – perhaps a provincial soap or minority interest sport. Its synthy brass and fussy disco drumming in no way prepares you for what happens next.
Track Two starts with thirty seconds of atmosphere, like the noise from a litter-strewn clearway late at night. Then a piano refrain to a marching beat. A guitar interjects with a sound like a stunned ox.
Finally, two minutes in – the voice starts. Somewhere mid-Atlantic between New York house diva and European cabaret turn, it’s a tenor wail singing about ripping one’s hair about by the roots and planting them in a garden to wait for Spring.
It’s 1982. The voice is that of Billy Mackenzie, the album is Sulk, the band are The Associates, with Arrogance Gave Him Up’s instrumental followed by No’s tale of obsessive love forming probably one of the oddest opening one-two punches to a successful pop record ever.
But then it escalates further before it calms: Bap De La Bap is yodelled, shrieked electro-funk, barely in control of itself. Gloomy Sunday approrpriates a jazz standard and wallows in glorious pathos. Nude Spoons is goth with a jaw-harp rythym and a lyric about drugs/finding a Roman coin in the River Tay (McKenzie was from Dundee) delivered in a hysteric’s falsetto.
Via the palette cleansers of Skipping and It’s Better That Way, Associates finally deign to give us the singles, seven tracks in. Party Fears Two – AKA the one that still gets played on the radio – is a great New Romantic 80’s pop song, while Club Country is a disco-fuelled outsider’s dismissal of the same scene as sneering, selfish and cruel. Another light entertainment instrumental finishes the whole thing off.
Together with Billy’s voice and the inventiveness of the backing tracks (kudos to main foil Alan Rankine) this pushme-pullyu attitude to pop is what makes Sulk so great. All the songs on the album are great pop songs, but on their own terms. They can’t be reduced to the sound of a single scene; all sonic affiliations are subverted by that voice or by the next instrumental curveball. It’s an intense little jewel of a record.