ASSOCIATES: SULK (1982)
1) Arrogance Gave Him Up; 2) No; 3) Bapdelabap; 4) Gloomy Sunday; 5) Nude Spoons; 6) Skipping; 7) It's Better This Way; 8) Party Fears Two; 9) Club Country; 10) Nothinginsomethingparticular; 11*) Love Hangover; 12*) 18 Carat Love Affair; 13*) Ulcragyceptimol; 14*) And Then I Read A Book; 15*) Grecian 2000; 16*) Australia; 17*) The Room We Sat In Before.
Considering the noticeable increase in tempos and repetitive choruses, it is hard to refrain from the thought that Mackenzie kept pushing the band in a more commercial direction — leading, eventually, to a split with Rankine, who (not without reason) thought that he was becoming sidetracked, and left for a solo career. On the other hand, «commercial» is not an easy word to use when you are dealing with the deliriously paranoid lifeform that is Billy Mackenzie: for every new fan that he was gaining with the band's re-orientation on the dance-pop market, he was probably alienating at least one old (pissed off at all the trendy keyboard sounds) and at least one potential (scared of Mackenzie's hystrionics).
The recent CD re-release of Sulk is seventeen tracks long, and since the style generally remains the same, may be overkill. However, the expansion is due to a healthy bunch of A- and B-sides from around the same year that the LP came out, and some of them are honestly better than the stuff they put on the LP. Arguably the best way to enjoy the trip is to program out the five or six tunes that you find too boring or annoying — and believe me, everyone will have a bunch of annoyingly boring favorites on Sulk — and be left with the catchiest, and most energetic collection of electronic dance-pop romances in the band's history.
The best of the lot never made it on the original LP: it is a thoroughly disloyal cover of Diana Ross' ʽLove Hangoverʼ, throttling the sweet lovey-dovey attitude of the disco original and replacing it with a lower, darker groove over which Mackenzie spreads out a tour-de-force performance. As a matter of fact, Diana's original never sounded much like a «hangover» — if our hangovers took on the form of her sweet ecstasy, we'd all be doomed alcoholics by now. In the hands of Mackenzie, however, the song finally justifies its title: the man plays out a real «hangover» — it's killing, yes it is, splitting headaches and all, but, for some reason, this is the state that he'd rather remain in for life. «Love» becomes a bout of masochism here, not some sort of generic abstract «pleasure».
This idea of reinterpreting ʽLove Hangoverʼ ties in brilliantly with the band's original vision. Sulk is almost nearly a conceptual album about the psychic dangers of love — at least half of the songs, both musically and lyrically, are about suffering from its side effects. Way too dark to be able to compete with the comparatively «fluffy» Duran Duran, yet much lighter than the contemporary Cure records, because Billy Mackenzie's ego never amounted to even half the size of Robert's Smith (yet again, not that it's necessarily a good thing: Robert Smith regularly offered plenty of musical fat to prop up the size of his ego — and no, that is not a veiled hint at the man's weight problems).
I have to confess that the actual music behind this attitude is fairly routine. With Rankine assigned to synthesizer duties, spending far more time at the keys than at his guitar strings, the toughest musical link in the band at this point is bass player Michael Dempsey, who, incidentally, joined the Associates soon after quitting The Cure. Considering that Three Imaginary Boys from 1979 was one of The Cure's bass-strongest records, that hardly comes as a surprise: most of the bass grooves on Sulk are first-rate, particularly on ʽSkippingʼ and ʽParty Fears Twoʼ. The keyboard work, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired. Most of the time I just feel like Rankine is weaving little flourishes around Mackenzie's «arias» that never take our attention span away from the vocals. Proving my point, the two completely instrumental numbers that bookmark the record are both utterly forgettable — minimalistic synth patterns pinned to bouncy rhythms; you could get that kind of stuff for a dime a dozen in 1982.
Mackenzie himself is quite good, though. Besides ʽLove Hangoverʼ, he also reinvents the old jazz standard ʽGloomy Sundayʼ (also known as ʽHungarian Suicide Songʼ) — it is fun to listen to his version alongside Billie Holiday's, showing how much and how little has changed over the fourty years that allegedly shook the world. ʽParty Fears Twoʼ remains stuck in the head as well, if only for the wall-rattling "AWAKE ME!" that serves as its climax — it's one of those tunes that is exactly 50% drunk romantic happiness and exactly 50% bleak suicidal despair, an explosive mix inherited from Roxy Music, but stripped of Bryan Ferry's salon smoothness. On the other hand, sometimes the silliness-as-seriousness is a bit too much to take — ʽBap De La Bapʼ is a dumb title, and the lyrics match its dumbness without even compensating with a bit of humour that could be expected from such a title. Dumb title, dumb lyrics, dumb «spooky» vocal delivery + annoying synthesizer sound = the Eighties forget no one.
Sulk is no masterpiece, and won't become one even when all the fat has been trimmed. In most retrospectives, it usually cuts off the «highly starred» period of the Associates' career, because most reviewers instinctively think that «loss of a key member» is always an objective event that the band needs to be penalized for. But Alan Rankine never was a particularly awesome guitarist, just a good one; and Sulk makes relatively little use of his talents in a relatively useful way — this is the Mackenzie show through and through, so the gap between it and the next stage of the «band» is not nearly as huge as one could believe from just browsing through the All-Music Guide. Still, it's got some good hooks, and, most importantly, when it is at its best, it's got that odd mood — how would you like to slit your veins while feeling totally happy about it? never mind, don't try that at home unless you are a Struggling Artist — that alone justifies a respectable thumbs up. I mean, I'm not sure I like that mood — in fact, I'm pretty sure I don't — but hey, a mood is a mood, and sometimes you just have to respect a mood while being detached from it. If everybody starts driving scooters into the oceans to the sounds of ʽLove Reign O'er Meʼ, that's gonna take a heavy toll on the fish population.