It's perfectly fine to sleep in a chair from Monday to Saturday...

I'm back from my parents' house, and Christmas was way less traumatic than I expected it to be, especially since my favorite football team appears against all odds to be headed for the playoffs (go Redskins!). That's not to say that I'm in the most wonderful of all possible moods. I am feeling better than I was when I was listening to that Mineral album pretty constantly, though. I suppose the album I'm now playing constantly, "Reading, Writing and Arithmetic" by The Sundays, says something about where my mental state is right now. In fact, I'd be willing to state that it says quite a lot.

For some reason, The Sundays are not nearly as famous as I have always thought the quality of their music merits. They have somewhat of a cult following, but it is tiny compared to that of The Smiths, who I think are probably the only band they're really comparable to. Considering that The Smiths (along with Black Flag) are my favorite band ever, that's high praise coming from me. It's not hyperbole, either. I've lived with this album for around 15 years, since purchasing it on cassette at a mall record store when I was about to go into ninth grade. The cassette disappeared sometime in the late 90s, and these days I listen to "Reading, Writing and Arithmetic" on a CD that I bought used soon after I discovered the loss of the cassette. It's an album I find myself returning to at least once a year, and it never fails to remind me all over again of its greatness. There are some unforgettable pop tunes of the British alternative subgenre on here, and even the worst track here is a "least favorite" as opposed to a dud.

If I tried to name a "most favorite", I'm sure I'd be stuck with a decision before I'd even eliminated half of the tracks. There is always "Here's Where The Story Ends" to consider, the first song I ever heard by The Sundays, which was by itself reason enough for me to buy the entire album. Album closer "Joy" was the song I fell in love with the hardest upon first listen to the album, it's dark, brooding tone perfectly expressing an emotion that, contrary to the one-word title, can't easily be summed up in a sentence, or even a paragraph. Then there's "My Finest Hour", probably the catchiest of all the songs, and certainly featuring the best lyrics. Or what about "Can't Be Sure," and "Skin and Bones"? If I'm picking on the basis of lyrics, I can't leave either of those out, any more than I can leave out "Hideous Towns" and "A Certain Someone" if I'm making tunes the first priority.

Discussing my favorite song on this record misses the point, though. The entire album is of a piece, which is why it stands slightly above its followup, "Blind," and head and shoulders above "Static and Silence", the nearly forgotten third album. If The Sundays could have stuck to the simplicity and uniformity that places their entire debut album at an equally stratospheric benchmark, perhaps they would be as well-known today as The Smiths. Or maybe it's just that they never got the right amount of airplay. Whatever, they deserve better.

Perhaps I should quit dancing around the subject and tell you why that is. Guitarist David Gavurin is the first reason why. His guitar playing throughout "Reading, Writing and Arithmetic" is stellar. Without ever seeming flashy, he constructs intricate beds of melodic sound for Harriet Wheeler's angelic voice to get comfortable in. What at first sounds like simple strumming reveals itself upon further listens to be made up of several layers. Acoustic guitars strum basic chords underneath single-note melodies played electrically but without any gain. These clean leads sit in the forefront of the mix, often camouflaging strange soaring and droning guitar parts that are buried underneath everything else, including the understated but note-perfect rhythm section. Bassist Paul Brindley and drummer Patrick Hannan are the true unsung heroes of this album, fading as they do completely out of the listener's consciousness during the songs only because of just how brilliant their understated playing truly is. Without the two of them, Dave Gavurin's guitar army would not achieve its deceptively simple effects nearly as easily.

But all of this would be so much less than it is without the voice of Harriet Wheeler. What a voice it is, far more conventionally beautiful than that of Morrissey in The Smiths, but every bit as distinctive. As are the lyrics, the final and, I would say, the crucial ingredient in The Sundays' brilliance. This review could easily extend upwards of two thousand words just making the attempt at chronicling and explicating every brilliant line and tossed-off phrase Wheeler stuffs into these songs, and I'd still end up missing at least half a dozen of them. They hew to a pretty constant theme, that of simultaneous bitter depression and sardonic amusement. Wheeler's horrible ability to maintain interpersonal relationships (I'm going strictly by her lyrics here; they could have nothing to do with reality, as in the case of The Cure's Robert Smith, who, despite thousands of songs about lost love and loneliness, has been with the same girl since he was 14) cripples her self-esteem. The only recourse she has found with which to offset her troubling depression and unstable self-image seems to be the hurling of wry barbs at her own awkward self.

She starts this strange internal tug-of-war almost immediately. By the time half a dozen lines of the album have gone by, she has stated, "You see me in a cardigan and a dress I've been sick on." She's leading with her flaws, her fuck-ups, perhaps in an attempt to run off a potential suitor, to avoid rejection by rejecting first. "How are you?" she asks, then quickly amends, "I can't say I really care at the end of it all." This exchanged is followed immediately by a chorus that presents the statement "I've found that we're just flesh and blood" as an explanation. Taken at face value, this assertion doesn't explain anything, but give it a moment's thought and it starts to become clearer. She's saying that people aren't really all that much, when you think about it. Why worry about dating, or try to keep up appearances? Strip away all of the bullshit about fashion and interests, and we're just skin and bones, a collection of molecules that will cohere for nothing more than an eyeblink compared to the life of the universe, then fall apart forever. This is the viewpoint of a depressed person, and she knows it on some level, but on another she's still hanging onto a connection with the world around her enough to make that comment about her dress having vomit on it. At the same time that she's sinking into existential depression, she's making fun of herself for doing so.

This theme, once established, continues throughout the album. "Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic" becomes a chronicle of the daily life of a lonely, depressed individual. "Here's Where The Story Ends", as I said before, was enough to justify my purchase of the entire album. This was at a time when I had to save allowance for two or three weeks to afford one cassette, too, so it must have hit me pretty hard at the time. This is no surprise, because it still hits me hard now, with its chronicle of finding some minor souvenir of a past relationship and being plunged into unexpected heartbreak all over again at the sight. "I can see how people look down; I'm on the outside," she says, a sentiment that struck to the core of my outcast heart when I was 13 no less powerfully than it does now, when I'm nearing 30.

Then there's "My Finest Hour", the title of which, Harriet explains, refers to her "finding a pound on the underground". For those of you not versed in British colloquialisms, what she's basically saying is that her life's crowning achievement came the day that she found a buck on the subway. Again, this is the sentiment of a depressed person. I should know; I've said similar things many times in the past. It's her delivery and word choice that sets what she's saying apart from the typical melodramatic lament of the depressed person, though; you can tell that even as she's saying it, she's making fun of herself for thinking that way, for being so self-deprecating. This is not the most affecting section of "My Finest Hour," though. This comes later, on the chorus, which I will reproduce here in its entirety:

I keep hoping you are the same as me
And I’ll send you letters and come to your house for tea.
We are who we are, what do the others know?
But poetry is not for me, so show me the way to go home.

In the wake of the total failure of my most recent relationship, I find this stanza resonating for me in ways that it never has before. There was always something I could relate to in the reluctance to admit to affection for another person, the feeling of its total pointlessness. They aren't going to dig you anyway, why bother? These days, though, I'm seeing more than that in this verse. The last time I fell in love, I really thought that it was going to last forever, that I had found a person to spend my life with. Instead, the relationship ended in slightly less than 6 months. Now, when I feel passing crushes coming on, I don't even have to ignore them or fight them off. I have no desire to even consider acting on them. Relationships, in my mind, are inextricably linked with pain and trauma. I'd love to find someone who understands me, with whom I could really make a connection. I just don't believe it's really even possible anymore, though. Once again: this is the viewpoint of a depressed person. I know this. It doesn't make it any easier to let it go and move on from it, though, and I think that's a feeling that Harriet Wheeler understands. She's had the same experience I have, where you contemplate how great it might be if you revealed your crush upon someone and they said all the things you wanted to hear, were open to cultivating a real relationship with you and sharing in the simple joys of life with someone by your side. Then, once you've thought about it for more than five minutes, you put it out of your head. It'll never happen, and you know it. That person is way too together, too interesting, too cool, to be into a loser like yourself. "When the words came stumbling out of my mouth, I came tumbling out," Harriet tells us, and though she never goes this far, you can imagine her saying, "I'll never do that again!" then laughing. She's found a way to extend that classic British stiff-upper-lip sensibility into a sort of mental defense system from the worst effects of depression. Turn it into a joke, laugh it off.

It doesn't always work, though. With all her bluster, all her laughs at her own expense, she's still alone. "You're Not The Only One I Know" is similar to "Skin and Bones" in it's brush-off tone, but that's really only on the choruses, where she tells the boy who is Not The Only One that she's "too proud to talk to you anyway." This is in stark contrast to the verses, in which she details the formation of bad habits from too long alone. "What's so wrong with counting the cars when I'm all alone?" she asks. What she seems to be saying is that there's no point in fighting against the bad habits formed by longterm solitude when one has no prospects for anything else in the future. Yet this is in the same song where she's brushing off a boy who is hitting on her. No one ever said depression was rational. Mine certainly never is.

I'll probably be listening to this record a lot over the next little while. I've been trying to write a song for my own band that will say the same thing that Harriet Wheeler says so eloquently on the chorus of "My Finest Hour", a song that lays out my exact reasons for not wanting to bother with relationships. I chase the theme for hundreds of words, way too many to ever fit into one song, and never come anywhere near the perfect combination of words, let alone reaching a point where I can whittle it down to a reasonable length. I almost want to just rip Harriet off and use her words instead of my own. Instead, though, I'll look to "Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic" for inspiration. I take heart in knowing that Harriet Wheeler, who, in addition to being an angelic vocalist and brilliant lyricist, has always been very pretty and charismatic, could suffer from all of the same crippling self-doubt and loneliness that plagues my own life. Maybe this means that there's hope for me yet. Perhaps the idea of being able to laugh at my own depression will help me get over the worst of it. But hey, even if that doesn't happen, I could hardly ask for a better soundtrack.


Anonymous Dominic said...

Wonderful writing as ever Andrew, I've ordered the album based on it. If it's half what you say I think me and the Sundays will be a a perfect match. I'll thank you when I know it's true.

6:40 PM  
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4:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an excellent post. Your article seriously illuminated some things with me and I agree that Reading, Writing & Arithmetic deserves more credit than it's received. I know how it feels to sleep in a chair from Monday to Saturday. Ha.


10:50 PM  
Blogger ShamRock said...

2 years late!

This was one of the best posts I've read on the internet, ever. I feel the same way about their music and their lyrics, and you managed to put it in just the right words. Thank you for that, made my day.

BTW, did they inspire you to write new songs? I know they did help me! =)


11:06 PM  
Anonymous Darkgrace said...

Nice post.

Have you really listened to Static and Silence? I think it is easily their best album. "Blind" was always the weakest album (although the b-side 'Wild Horses' was just a superb Stones cover).

Please go back to Static & Silence and have a good listen! "Homeward", "Folk Song" and "Monochrome" are sublime moments on a brilliant album.

10:07 PM  
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