Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Five Star Album: Reading, Writing & Arithmetic by The Sundays

 In 1990 I was going to UK and working on a farm in Lexington.  My roommate had a Commodore 64 and an old TV that we spent way too much time on.  I believe he also bought a desktop computer that year.  He also had a really nice turntable and used to listen to Concert: The Cure Live all the time.  

In one of my more creative moments I figured out a way to hook up the old TV to the stereo and began recording the MTV show 120 Minutes onto cassette.  I'd then listen to the cassette when I was working out at the farm and it was on one of these cassettes that I first heard "Where the Story Ends" and immediately went out to buy the album.  Sadly the album hadn't made it to Lexington yet, but I was able to buy the single they had put out the year before "Can't Be Sure."  As soon as I got the album, a few weeks later, if I recall, I immediately made a tape of it and would listen to it over and over again while working at the farm.  

Now we are 32 years since the album came out and I can still listen to it from beginning to end and enjoy every minute of it.  Maybe that's because Harriet Wheeler and David Gavurin found some kind of magic.  I'm not sure, but when you read about the band and how they got started it seems like they stumbled onto something really special almost by accident.  The band formed up in 1988 and went out and played a gig and by their next gig they had record labels wanting to sign them.

I don't want to seem insensitive to the other band members, Patrick Hannan and Paul Brindley, but Wheeler and Gavurin were the heart of the band.  They co-wrote all the music and are a couple.  They met in college at Bristol and put together a band after moving to London.  Then they fell into success almost immediately.  

Both Gavurin and Wheeler were 27 when Reading, Writing & Arithmetic came out and that is older by first record standards, but it feels so incredibly youthful.  Not only the music but the lyrics.  Gavurin has talked about the fact that he and Wheeler wrote the songs, literally by going back and forth with lyrics.  He'd write a line, then she'd write a line.  At times the songs do feel very free form, but then at times the lyrics work well.  The key of course is the music he put around the songs and Wheeler's vocals.  

Wheeler is an exceptional vocalist and this is at the heart of this album being so good.  Gavurin, musically isn't creating anything groundbreaking.  He was taking heavy influences from people like The Smiths and the Cocteau Twins and others at the time and creating this sound around Wheeler, but she is the heart.  To me the best example would be 10,000 Maniacs where you have Robert Buck creating the sound that wraps around all the work Natalie Merchant is doing both lyrically and vocally.  

There are a lot of bands that popped up that were heavily influenced by The Smiths.  But by 1990 that sound had been replaced with something different and the alternative sound was heading in a different path.  It made The Sundays album at the time really stand out.  It was such a throwback to The Smiths, but it was done in a way that had so much positivity to it.  There is something about the energy to the album that is infectious and really says a lot about the talent of both Gavurin and Wheeler.  

OK so let's take a look at the tracks.  

Skin & Bones

Audibly it's an interesting opening track.  It would seem to be a song that would appear deeper in the album but by opening with it, it sets an interesting tone, especially lyrically.  We have the great line

It's not quite my style

work and vanity

wasted my time inside

Talk about sounding very Smiths.  But then lyrically it turns to something that has a totally none Smith's vibe.  Rather than taking those feelings and rooting them into some kind of negative feelings, they are turned to a deeper thought, which is that ". . . we're just skin and bones."

This lyrical tone will carry through the album.  The thoughts of a 20 something person looking at their life and the world around and not being angry or depressed but being thoughtful about what it all means.  The funny thing about The Sundays is that they had the potential to be big stars, but they chose to remain small and target smaller audiences and disappear after three albums.  I guess because at the end of it all we're just skin and bones.  


Here's Where the Story Ends

I really thought I had done a best song entry on this track, but I can't find it.  Easily one of my favorite songs of all time this is maybe the best song about looking back on a failed relationship/friendship ever written.  Again it's because of the perspective the song takes.  It's not angry but thoughtful about a lot of things not just the relationship.  On top of that it's a beautiful sounding song.  

OK so let's think of it this way for this song.  You were in a relationship at some point in your past.  Something happens, maybe at work.  You feel like you are on the outside of everything looking in.  This reminds you of the relationship you had with this person in your past, where in the end you felt like an outsider in their life.  But then you realize that really you're OK and you aren't the problem it's just the way the world is and in that moment you realize you can close that story in your life, which before made you feel sad.  

Deep right?  It really is and it's done in a way where I'm sure a million people have a million different interpretations of this song, but that's mine.  

Here are some lyrics to give you a sense of what I'm talking about.  

People I see, weary of me
Showing my good side
I can see how, people look down
I'm on the outside
So you ever feel like people look sideways at you because you are trying to be upbeat and positive and they think you shouldn't feel that way because you are on the outside of the inside crowd?  

Those thoughts trigger this thought. 

It's that little souvenir, of a terrible year
which makes my eyes feel sore
Oh I never should have said, the books that you read
were all I loved you for
All that of course leads to the conclusion at the end which is 

It's that little souvenir, of a colorful year
which makes me smile inside
So I cynically, cynically say, the world is that way
Surprise, surprise, surprise, surprise, surprise
This song is both sad and happy at the same time and that is something that is really hard to pull off.  But it works and it works in part because the lyrics, in part because of the music, but it works really because of Wheeler's vocals.  

Can't Be Sure

This was their first single.  It's an interesting opener for a band I think.  A classic middle class, 20 something angst song if I ever heard one.  As someone who used to want to go to Russia and teach a course on the American middle class angst novel this is right up my alley.  

I Won

One of the harder things about getting older is relationships.  In your late 20's suddenly you are sharing an apartment or a house with a partner.  Maybe you have an argument and you're left feeling adrift and frustrated.  It's easy to think of how it used to be when you were younger.  When you were simply partying, maybe in the same house and it was fun.  

I read in one piece about the band where Gavurin spoke of their lyrics as being impressionistic, but I think of them more as stream of consciousness.  Especially when you think of the two of them writing the songs in a back and forth manner.  

Sometimes this leads to brilliance and sometimes it can be very abstract.  I've never been quite sure of the ending of this song, but I do love the line "Oh, your supercilious smile."

Hideous Towns

Maybe when he's talking of impressionistic songs he's talking about something like "Hideous Towns."  This song seems to carry no real meaning or story just a connected series of thoughts.  It comes back to this idea of being very young and being very naive I would say.

You're Not the Only One I Know

Sometimes with abstract songs the thing you are looking for are those nuggets that for whatever reason connect with you.  When I was around 27 I found myself spending a lot of time alone in my apartment, often sleeping in a chair rather than my bed and so for me this verse has always hit home in an odd way.  

So I say I'm in love with the world
and what is so wrong with voicing a doubt
When I'm on my own
It's perfectly fine to sleep in a chair
from Monday to Saturday
And what is so wrong with talking out loud
when I'm all alone

A Certain Someone

And sometimes abstract is just abstract and it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  Funny thing is though I've always really liked this song.  The sound, her voice, a few lines that I've always liked.  

So live your life, build a home
and fill it full of flowers and a bottle of old cologne

I Kicked a Boy

I've always adored this song.  Just something about the lyric and her delivery that is fantastic.  

When the weather's fine, when it's sunny outside
Think about the time I kicked a boy 'til he cried
Oh, I could've been wrong, but I don't think I was
He's such a child
So here you are in your late 20's.  You've got a chance to have a long term relationship with someone you like, but you are thinking about all the times you've broken some young man's heart.  At least that is where I go on this one.  It's funny because in one instance she's questioning herself, "And I've been wondering lately just who's gonna save me" but then again she's also OK with her actions.  "And I could've been wrong, well I don't think I was."

I knew a number of women back in the 80's and 90's who were held up as being bad because they broke some young man's heart.  The truth is though in most of those circumstances she didn't do anything wrong, she just chose not to be with him because she didn't like him.  This song has always made me think of those situations.  

There was a woman I worked with at Wendy's.  She had two kids and an abusive husband.  She was trying to get up the nerve to move out and take the kids but he was constantly threatening her and the kids.  When she turned to her own parents for help they told her it was all her fault because she wasn't a good enough wife.  That's always stuck with me.  She was just trying to protect herself and her children form an abusive man, but she was left to feel like she was a rebel, that she was doing something wrong.  

My Finest Hour

I remember going to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, and being completely caught off by how much he had accomplished at such a young age.  I think I was like 25 and I felt like I had just wasted my time away.  So I've always loved the line in this song, "My finest hour that I've ever known was finding a pound on the underground."

Nothing feels more late 20's to me than that sentiment.


I have to say I've never had a clue on this song.  But like all the others on this album I like it.  This is the classic stream of consciousness lyrics I was talking about.  It all builds to the final verse which is maybe the most late 1980's ,20 something abstract verse ever.
Joy, joy, joy
Work, work, work harder
Sure as the hours
Joy, joy, joy
Work, work, work harder
You say

That's it that is my take on this brilliant album.  Sad to say The Sundays only did three albums and all of them were very good, but they had other things to do than be musicians I suppose, like raising a family.  If someone came to me and wanted an album about what it is like to be middle class and be in your late 20's when you are still trying to figure out your path, I would hand them this one.  Nothing I've ever heard captures those feelings better.


  1. Outstanding. What I most remember about this album is how totally fresh "Here's Where the Story Ends" sounded the first time I heard it on the radio or MTV or on someone's mix tape, and, 30 years later, that song still sounds really fresh.

  2. You know, I was certain I'd bought this record, but, in going through the songs other than "Here's Where the Story Ends," I didn't remember a one of them. I must've never had it. Anyway, it's definitely a distinctive sound that defines a specific mood, and I loved your stories about the songs. I'm pretty sure an older version of the whole "I Kicked a Boy" story is playing out with some neighbors--police have been involved, etc. I hope things have worked out differently for your Wendy's friend.