The Sundays - Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
If there's one advantage to being too poor to afford new records it's that you're forced to listen to the old ones you haven't quite figured out yet. Because of this it seems likely that the Sundays would benefit from a depression. Their 1990 album Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic has the unfortunate habit of reminding nearly everyone who hears it of the Smiths, and on first listen it does indeed sound like an inferior version of the latter band's debut, with strangely high-pitched vocals and guitars that can't quite find Johnny Marr's subtle hooks. But unlike most music, the album is better than it sounds. It takes some time before even the joy on its surface starts to shimmer—but once it does, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic slowly begins to reveal itself. Only a few weeks later will one, while patiently watching the ripples on that surface, finally spot the tiny sparks of light that flicker beneath it like small, silvery fish. And perhaps a few months later, won over by the intensity of those sparks, one will begin to think about the album.
It's probably best to assume that most of the people who bought the record, and, as it seems, every critic who has written about it, never arrived at this point. If they did, they would have discovered that the Sundays are, in fact, the antithesis of the Smiths. Or if one dislikes that word, they are—among other things—the solution to the problem that the Smiths pose. You ask: 'What? The Smiths pose a problem? I knew Morrissey had problems; I even knew he liked posing—but I didn't think he posed problems...?'
When comparing the music of both groups, though, it becomes easier to see what makes Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic not only great, but truly unique—specifically their respective debut singles: the Smiths' “Hand in Glove”/”Handsome Devil”, and the Sundays' “Can't Be Sure”/”I Kicked a Boy”. Both deal with the problem of desire and love.
In “Hand in Glove” and “Handsome Devil” Morrissey makes two accusations. First, in “Hand in Glove”, he accuses a couple of fooling themselves into believing that their love will last, that their romance and thus they themselves are truly special, and that their feelings are deep and real. But, more importantly, Morrissey believes that they are aware of this. More specifically, that all romantic love is a manufactured shared 'love' to fill an internal void born of loneliness and the self-doubt that accompanies it—all of which a powerless ego attempts to conceal.
Secondly, in “Handsome Devil”, Morrissey accuses not only those who are motivated by sex, but sexual desire itself. The force of this accusation parallels that of the first. Sex, he seems to be saying, is ultimately the main element of relationships, and the inconstancy, emptiness, and arbitrariness of desire—and thus its injustice—torments him. And not only this: desire motivates us to conceal our true intentions (“Miserable Lie”: “I recognize that mystical air / It means "I'd like to see your underwear"”) and prevents us from seeing beyond appearances and into the real character of others—and thus makes the birth of a real love impossible from the start. Love is caught up in appearances, grounded in lies, and motivated by our blindest impulses, and the fact that we are so powerfully drawn by it is only a mark of our inability to know the real love of which we can conceive. Love and desire are inseparable, and yet they are bitter opponents. Obviously this is a recipe for despair—but that doesn't mean it's false. The messages of “Hand in Glove” and “Handsome Devil” are similar, although certainly—and significantly—not identical. How do we respond to the problem they present?
A few listens to Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic quickly reveals that the Sundays' are somehow accept love and desire at the same time. But it isn't this alone that sets them apart. Not only do they accept both at the same time, but they do so with full knowledge of the problem that Morrissey posed. They haven't simply ignored it, forgotten about it or remained ignorant of it. They actively affirm both. The affirmation of desire is readily apparent on “Can't Be Sure”, and the affirmation of love is easy to hear in the album track “My Finest Hours”. But is it really possible to affirm love and desire once one has realized their opposition? Isn't this having the cake and eating it too?
“Give me a story and give me a bed / Give me possessions / Love, luck, and money they go to my head / Like wildfire”, “Can't Be Sure” begins. Harriet Wheeler's lyric goes beyond merely ignoring or glossing over the full impact of sex and falsehood—she asks for them outright. “It's good to have something to live for you'll find...live for a job and a perfect behind”, she continues. Here she is directly and joyfully affirming the arbitrary, the contingent, and the frivolous. And what of injustice? “England's as happy as England can be / Why cry?” The next lines could almost be read as a direct response to the first Smiths single: “and did you know desire's a terrible thing / It makes the world go blind / But if desire, desire's a terrible thing / Well I rely on mine”. This last line is the key to the Sundays' response: they saw that all of our decisions rely on a kind of desire—and in fact even Morrissey's desire for an ideal love is a desire!
Wheeler's admonition “it's good to have something to live for you'll find” points towards a further conclusion. Not only is the desire for ideal love a desire like other desires—one perspective of many rather than a position of objectivity—is in fact a nihilistic desire, that derives, as our reading of the “Hand in Glove” single seems to show, from the values of truth, rigidity and the fiction of an austere mind that resides somewhere above a body that it controls—a nihilistic desire that gains power over us through its alignment with the forces of traditional morality. Only by recognizing that the impulse against the sexual and the frivolous is but one impulse among many and not the sole 'true' impulse, the only one proper to the 'mind', do we regain our innocence and freedom. And this is the sound of “Can't Be Sure”. Wheeler affirms the body and the impulses of the body; she frees herself from the barely concealed world-negation that appears to dominate Morrissey's values. “Though I can't be sure what I want anymore / It will come to me later...”. Even the uncertainty that accompanies Wheeler's freedom becomes a source of joy.
But what about love? It strangely appears that love has been regained. Morrissey wanted a love that was separate from the body. But having recognized, as Wheeler does on “Skin and Bones”, that we are only the body, we regain the body's ability to love—our own ability to love, and not an idealized love trapped by morality and chained to the denial of the world and of our own nature. The chorus of “Skin and Bones” oscillates between lamentation and exultation. At first it laments our fate, laments that we are limited by the body: “work and vanity wasted my time inside”. But as the chorus is repeated, Wheeler's cry “we're just flesh and blood / And nothing much more” becomes filled with the same strange joy that shoots through “Can't Be Sure”—a joy barely concealing the sharp pain that ultimately heightens the feeling of exultation.
But more important than this rejection of others’ criticism, especially as a response to Morrissey, is the rejection of the devaluation of her own hopes and desires that the phrase ‘skin and bone’ initially appears to imply. For the young Morrissey, ‘skin and bone’ could only refer to the desires of the flesh as distinguished from the desires of the mind or spirit, and to say that we are only skin and bone would be to say that the desires of the mind do not hold the privileged position we have assigned them, and can never bestow the kind of beauty and peace that should be the reward of those who dwell above the body. It would be tantamount to saying that this mind does not exist at all: the destruction of all meaningful values. Indeed, this was the possibility that confronted Morrissey, and of which he was certainly aware. “Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?” (“Still Ill”); “No heavenly choir / Not for me and not for you” (“Jeane”); “You may sleep, but you will never dream” (the price of moral failure in “Suffer Little Children”). But for Wheeler, the collapse of the hierarchy dominated by the mind ultimately results in the reactivation of the desires previously suppressed by it—desires which were struggling for and toward life and not against it.
And now an essential point becomes clear: the moral imperative that guided Morrissey was in fact incapable of generating an impulse toward life with sufficient power to replace that of the desires it suppressed; that is, it was only capable of limiting the forces that could actively affirm life, and not of doing so itself. This, and not simply loneliness, is the source of Morrissey’s depression. Recall his search for “people who are young and alive”—contrasted, obviously, with himself—in “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, as well as the earlier lines “vivid and in your prime / You will leave me behind” (“These Things Take Time”).
In his relentless and perceptive criticism of desires of the body, Morrissey destroyed the possibility of bringing to prominence the ‘higher’ desires for which he so longed. For if love cannot be separated from the desire for sex and the desire to be together no matter with whom, then it is clear that love can only be fully regained when the other impulses are affirmed along with it, and that it is placed entirely out of reach when we seek the absolute suppression of those that seem to contradict it. Moreover, affirming the competing desires within the self is the only way to effect the unification of the self: engaging in this affirmation, we no longer look down on the body from a position we take to be higher, and thus turn against our own impulses—the very forces that constitute our being. This unification, however, does not eliminate the differences and disagreements of the competing desires. Only when we affirm them even in their contradictions are we able to make any of them active; only when we affirm their multiplicity are we able to discover our unity.
If you're unconvinced by my argument, or by the claim that Wheeler's declaration in ‘Skin and Bone’ once again makes love available, you may want to listen once more to the incredible 'My Finest Hours'. With its achingly beautiful chorus and unexpected but perfect coda, it shows the heart of Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic with both its words and its music—which provide their own argument.
and I keep hoping
that you are the same as me
and I'll send you letters
and come to your house for tea
we are who we are
and what do the others know...
But we’ve oversimplified things. And oversimplified Morrissey, whose complex position would develop subtly as his career progressed, in order to put the Sundays into clearer relief. As noted in passing, the two sides of the “Hand in Glove” single, though similar, are not identical. While the straightforward B-side fits into the argument relatively neatly, the A-side—one of the least understood Smiths songs—is more difficult, and the Sundays' response less obvious. Here Morrissey's clear vision becomes important, and pushes us to make finer distinctions. Indeed, it may be that Morrissey, at this point in his career, failed to recognize the true nature of desire; or it may be that he was simply unable to escape the grip of a morality that even he did not have faith in. But all this doesn’t fully respond to “Hand in Glove”, nor does it shake the feeling that something really is wrong with the love the song depicts—especially for those who have unwittingly found themselves in the situation Morrissey describes.
What distinguishes the couple in “My Finest Hours” from that of “Hand in Glove”? Even leaving the question of authenticity aside, it’s evident that the two loves differ profoundly in origin: for the pair from “Hand in Glove”, 'love' is the product of a deep poverty, of a despair in which even the identity of the beloved becomes meaningless. But the mad beauty of Wheeler's love arises from an overabundance of life that spills over in the coda of “My Finest Hours”: ecstatic, gentle and overwhelming at the same time. The former 'love' is not the “reason to live for” that Wheeler spoke of, but the result of a despair that gives us a reason to not live; the latter is quite the reverse. If the former is the product of a pure negation, the latter is affirmation itself. And this, the affirmation of the body, is the Sundays’ response to the problems Morrissey posed. “You're, you're, you're too young...”, Wheeler sings: in the conclusion of “My Finest Hours”, the early morning sun filtered and refracted into white-gold curves, with none of its freshness lost.
By: John Polewach
Published on: 2004-08-17