WILD AND LONELY
The first time I heard The Associates was when I saw "Party Fears Two" on "Top Of The Pops". It was one of those moments - the first snarl of "Anarchy in the UK", the first spin and reel of "This Charming Man", the first giddy sip of Prince - when the mind gapes, you exhale sheer awe. Billy Mackenzie oozed such illegal self assurance, lethal panache, supernatural elegance. It was a revelation, a ravishment.
Since then, The Associates have lingered, reproachfully in the back of the mind as one of the great "should have beens" of pop. By rights, Mackenzie and Rankine should have dominated the decade like Prince. "Fourth Drawer Down" and "Sulk" continue to shame this day and age with their febrile exploration of the outer limits of the pop form. Like Siouxsie at her pinnacle, The Associates injected all the derangement of psychedelic angst into pop, almost bursting it at the seams.
"Wild And Lonely" is no "Sulk", but it is a splendid reprise of the torrid, wind-swept, never-never pop that The Associates made their own. The reference points are all mid-to-late seventies: Donna Summer's "Once Upon A Time", Bowie's plastic soul, Sparks, Diana Ross' "Love Hangover", an entire long-lost wonderland of orchestral disco. The arrangements alone - a swirl of strings, percussion and rather to many grand piano flourishes - are marvelous: sculpture in four dimensions. On "Fire To Ice" (three words that just about encapsulate The Associates' aesthetic) and "Fever", Mackenzie is in top vocal form: more composed than the devotee might wish, but still capable of some electrifying shudders and tics, spasms and swoons. As for the rest of side one, the relentlessly uptempo pace irks somewhat, after a while: the Moroder throb of "People We Meet" never really ignites, "Just Can't Say Goodbye" is a little bit Tina Charles, and "Calling All Around The World" is marred by a jocose horn section.
Mercifully, side two is altogether more blue. "Something's Got to Give" is lugubrious Eurodisco, somewhere between Cabaret Voltaire and Scott Walker, with wraith-like keyboards hinting at insanity seething between the immaculate surface. "Strasbourg Square" is a doomy ballad, fidgeting with needling, nervous detail. "Ever Since The Day" is like a cross between Mantronix and Bassey's "Goldfinger", while "Wild And Lonely" is a majestic, highly strung finale, a hooded Mackenzie glowering into the void from the vantage point of some desolate, mind's eye heath or cliff, (Heathcliffe!).
Like Yello, The Associates' sound harks back to some indeterminate bygone era when the malady and madness of love was properly expressed in epic proportions, when pop music luxuriated in grief. It's no coincidence that Mackenzie was involved in Yello's finest moments ("The Rhythm Divine" and "Moon On Ice"). Unlike Yello, with The Associates there's something consumptive beneath the surface camp, a fire that burns like ice. "Wild And Lonely" is no "Sulk": the volcano of Mackenzie's purple hysteria remains dormant. But this album is a thoroughly aristocratic return for one of our last pop heroes.
By Simon Reynolds