Tom Doyle's sleeve notes on SULK
For such a kaleidoscopic record, seemingly beamed in from another planet, SULK - the closest the Associates ever came to creating their masterpiece - was recorded in a grey, industrial setting light years away from the leafy, exotically colourful environment depicted on the album's cover.
Playground Studios, built (or according to most recollections, half-built) by SULK producer Mike Hedges, was situated in a corner of a drafty Camden warehouse. But if this drab, workmanlike space seems wholly at odds with the headspinning music that it bore, then most visitors testify that the ramshackle charm of the studio perfectly suited the Associates' rocket-fuelled, creatively unhinged working methods.
Taking the experiments of the first two albums to their illogical conclusion, MacKenzie and Rankine - aided and abetted by bassist Michael Dempsey and drummer John Murphy - upped the creative ante to sky-scraping levels. Aside from the often incredible performances that went into the realisation of these songs, SULK frequently found the Associates at play, in the child-like sense of the word.
In their endless search for found sounds, industrial drums and canisters were rolled down reverberating corridors, sheets of metal were vigorously shaken to create the effect of rolling thunder (witness the introduction to No), hired drums were filled with water (they turned to mush), hired guitars were pissed in (Billy's idea) and a canister of helium was ordered (to fill the balloons that festooned the control room at one point and not - as rumourmongers at the time suggested - to aid the MacKenzie falsetto). Billy once stated that, for the purposes of creative enhancement, the pair had decided to arrive at the studio for a week with fresh fish pinned to their lapels. Alan doesn't recall this, but doesn't entirely rule it out either.
There's a near-watertight theory that SULK is an album of two distinct sides, separated by mood: its first five tracks dark, brooding and frequently maniacal; the latter five letting some of the light back in, resulting in moments of over-stimulated joy.
What all the tracks here certainly have in common is the textural, multi-layered production that resulted from MacKenzie and Rankine piling overdub after overdub onto the already groaning master tapes. With every listen - even nearly two decades after its release - SULK still yields new and previously unheard delights.
And now, with the addition of their last "proper" hit 18 Carat Love Affair and its double A-side accomplice, their ecstatic take on Love Hangover, SULK is at last complete.
Additionally, here the original ten tracks are presented in their UK-released form, with none of the lumpen overdubs, tracklist shuffles or remixes that marred the US version (Note).
Tail-ending this edition are a bonus five tracks - the cinematic Grecian 2000, the demented Ulcragyceptemol, the even more demented Australia, long lost outtake And Then I Read A Book and The Room We Sat In Before, a guitar and vocal version of It's Better This Way that perfectly showcases MacKenzie and Rankine's musicality when stripped of the pyrotechnics.
During the recording of SULK, Billy MacKenzie and Alan Rankine often lost sight of their original intention, sometimes mixing and remixing a track anything up to ten times in their Brian Wilson-like striving for absolute perfection. The fact that they probably failed to achieve this only makes for a more intense and fascinating record.
Upon its release, the Associates' third album sounded like a bit of a glorious, technicolour mess. Now, it seems - like Prince's best work in that decade - it's an album that doesn't, sonically or spiritually, belong to the 1980s.
Eighteen years on, SULK remains alluring, magical and - without question - absolutely timeless.
(Tom Doyle - February 2000)
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Note: You can read a different point of view about the US version from listee Richard (back to the review)
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