When "Reading Writing and Arithmetic" first charmed the souls of sensitive individuals everywhere, the world was a different place. Manchester ruled, the Soviet Union was intact, and people still took Morrissey seriously. Three years on, everything's changed. Except The Sundays, of course, whose long awaited second album, "Blind", is a thing of typical sombre beauty. Andrew Mueller reports.
The Sundays, a north London four piece based around a north London couple (who make records about as twee as life) are back you'll have noticed. Those of you who think that birthday's, great Test matches, Riccardo Patrese Grand Prix wins and transfixing infatuations in general would be just as implausibly thrilling if they happened every week can go ahead and consider this to be a problem if you like. What actually matters is that "Blind" , The Sundays' second album, is a thing of great and laudable - and here's a word you haven't heard a lot of this year - grace. Can we we still say that ? The gorgeously meandering tunes and words on "Blind" have this way of complementing each other almost subliminally, like ballroom dancers in blindfolds. I don't put it like that when they turn up. They'd only laugh.
Actually, its a while before I get a chance. For a start Harriet and David are late, which I am predisposed to thinking is kind of cute, all things considered. Secondly, when you interview The Sundays, you bring something to the party, or else. After an hour or several, they'll know more about you than your parents. There is nothing that will distract the pair of them, David especially, into pursuing any stray tangent, however fleetingly offered, to a conclusion. Today, for example, they've arrived in this salubrious Islingtion pub to find their interrogator reading the first volume of Shelby Foote's history of the US Civil War. So we're almost into the dregs of the first round before David will accept that McClellan was perhaps more than necessarily cautious, that only Jackson's incomprehensible idleness during the Sevens Days stopped the Rebels winning it in 1862, and that Lincoln was an insufferable meddler. With desperation rapidly setting in, I manage to observe - while David draws breath - that they've just been on a promotional trip to America.
"Yes," says David, quickly, like he says everything. "They think we're cute little English people."
Don't you ever - warming to a theme, see - feel the same about them ? Wouldn't you like America better if it was just a pointless little European principality where you could go and have a good laugh without having to worry about that these people run the world ?
"Ah, well, that's interesting. Because I think that for whatever reason - and I think it comes across in the music occasionally - British people have this sort of arrogance about Britain. I think what makes Britain interesting is its declining importance, accompanied by the continued self-belief of the British."
A phone rings.
"That'll be Morrissey," says Harriet, to mild uproar.
So, erm, then - the hack sees a straw and then lunges - how important is, um, being, not to put too fine a point on it, English, to you, then, eh what ?
David shoots me a priceless look. "Car, that's a bit of a seamless link, Andrew."
Well, I had to do something. We'll end up having a conversation if we're not careful.
They've been asked about the Englishness thing a thousand times before, of course, and at least once before by me. But that's okay, because I was in Australia at the time and hence thought their implied heritage at least as exotic, as ooh, rain. They answered then, as they do now, that they're English by default, by virtue of the fact that they're not American, Spanish, middle Aztec. Whatever. The other thing they've been asked a thousand times is, where have they been ? Why so long ? When "Reading Writing and Arithmetic" strummed the heartstrings of a generation all those, well, months ago, Berlin had a wall, Happy Mondays had hits, Dennis had Rula. Clearly, it's a question that Harriet and David are going to be sick of hearing. Fiendishly cleverly, I address this issue by asking them how sick they are of hearing it.
"I think," decides Harriet, "we find it a bit wearing, eventually. I mean, no one's said to Neneh Cherry, `Where have you been for three years, goddammit ?', But then noone's said `Goddammit' to us either, so".
Was it that you wanted to just hang back and live a bit, to have some experiences worth writing about ?
"There wasn't much time for that, in fact. I don't think we feel like we write from that kind of inspiration anyway. I don't think we feel like we need to experience as such to translate into music. It just translates itself somehow onto a tape and feeds off itself. The lyrics come afterwards, from us knocking them about and taking the music from the music that's come into being. There, that was very concise, wasn't it ?"
What they did on their holiday was: toured the world a couple of times, got quite big in America, watched their label go bust, went looking for another deal, managing themselves the whole time, moved house, wrote a brilliant album, 11 deep cuts of bittersweet ennui. Try it yourselves sometime, see how fast you can do it.
"Blind" is such a great record because if manages to deal with ordinary feelings with extraordinary eloquence. Somewhere, somehow, almost uniquely in their field. Harriet and David have grasped the fact that our lives aren't, in the glare of reality, the grand emotional melodramas that we like to think they are. That the only feeling that really hangs with us constantly, is a vague, barely definable discontent, a grey mist of dissatisfaction. "Blind" is an album that understands that however much we may all fancy overselves as hamlets, agonising centre-stage over earth-jarring dilemmas and catastrophes that would destroy a lesser person, the company we truly keep, day to day, is that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That we're bit players anguishing over ultimate irrelevancies.
"Blind" is real life as wry poetry. It's also one of the saddest albums I've ever heard. There is a duet of astonishment at this suggestion. "No one else has said that," says David.
"I hope you mean that in a nice way," Reproves Harriet.
"But," continues David, "sad doesn't have to mean miserable, does it ? Because miserable sounds a bit grumpy."
Oh, no. I didn't mean like you were stamping your feet or anything.
"Well, touching then," offers David, regarding me as though I'd just announced my imminent accession to the throne of Romania. "How about that ?"
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean I'm trying to get at the pervading atmosphere of unhappiness and bewilderment. Or bewildered unhappiness, really.
"Well," he says, laughing again, "as you can see, we're two very unhappy and bewildered people."
Ah, but you must be, surely. Your favourite lyrical devices are I-don't- knows and I-don't-understands. You use more question marks than fullstops. You know what I mean.
"I think" announces Harriet, eventually, "that bewilderment might not be totally out of context, if we talk about the lyrics. But I think we feel, and have felt before, that there's a musical thread that can tap into those - poignant. I guess - halfway happy, halfway sad ...em..." David to the rescue.
"The way we've brought up is to get on, to achieve, to do something with our lives. And if you, through, drink or music or whatever, are kind of released from the restrictions that your normal life places on you, there's a sense of being drawn to those feelings which are sad, but somehow...rich."
The last track on "Blind" is a song called `Medicine". It's a gutting evocation of of loneliness, disillusionment and bitter self-loathing that combines Harriet's golden voice, careworn, but glorious, with David's guitar knelling where it usually chooses to chime. Aside from being easily my favourite song of the current calendar, it's about as grim a finale as could be imagined. Not content with the parade or wretched imponderables that we've already been presented with, we get a reminder - "Don't go imagining that time is medicine".
Bloody hell, kick a chap while he's down.
David and Harriet laugh again.
"At one stage," begins David, seeing a bright illustration of his band's ethos beaming from the end of the tunnel, "that lyric, though I can't remember exactly how it was phrased, was going to say that time did heal all wounds. But that's often the way when we write. We don't start off with a set view of what it's going to be, and often there'll be a point where it could go either way. In the same way, you can think at different points every day, let alone your life, that time will or won't change things. And I don't think it's a cop-out to have one. It can't be that simple, because life can't be pinned down like that." Would you agree that you're being more ambiguous this time out ? You told more stories on "Reading...", that did things rather than felt them. There's not a lot of finding pounds on the underground going on on "Blind".
"No," agrees Harriet. "Very few and far between."
"Ah," leaps David, "but did you think that was an up moment ?"
In itself, yes. Coupled with the qualifier, "The finest hour I've ever known was...", no.
"That's brilliant though. I thinks that's a band could ever hope for, that their music won't be pinned down to I-can-only-play-it-when-I'm- happy or I-can-only-play-when-I'm-sad. Because then you just become and item that people can use conveniently to slot into their moods. And you want it to have its own life, that can work on people in different ways at different times."
So does it upset you if I say that I can't ever imagine listening to "Blind" when I'm happy ?
"I suppose it should do, really, shouldn't it. But I don't know what's inside your head apart from a big boggly brain. But obviously everybody thinks in different ways, and if you find it depressing, fine." A shrug, a swift gulp of lager.
"Just cheer up, for gawd's sake."
There's more of course. When David and/or Harriet get one, there always is. When I rang David from Sydney in the (southern) summer of 1990, and interview scheduled for half and hour ran to nearly two. The last time I'd bumped into them, after Throwing Muses' blistering Town and Country show, David had launched into a lengthy, highly drunken and barely comprehensible tirade about just about everything ever. The night before the interview, David had called to work out where we should meet. Even this apparently basic task involved nigh on 30 minutes of scattergun conversation.
And so we drove off for a curry, cab it down to the Underworld to catch swaggering glamourpusses Catwalk, rope in anyone interesting who's passing (Tony Halliday and Alan Moulder give up after the first three places we try are shut, the jessies), and head up Camden High Road to a highly dubious drag club. As an upshot of the above, David and I have an animated disagreement about the Death Of Text, I win The Heroines' guitarist a pink plastic whistle on a string via an improbable coin- operated game, and Harriet owes me 20 pounds.
So they're back, and "Blind" is an album that will see through you, through us all, with a withering clarity. It occurs, though, this far down the page, that the above few hundred words may have painted our heroes in unfairly dark shades, cast them unfairly as born-again doom- mongers. In order to avoid doing them this grace disservice, I'll leave you with the following exchange, recorded earlier, as the most representative I can find of what of I know of their characters. We're talking about the words on the first album.
David: "We had lots of letter about, you know, `So Harriet, did you actually kick a boy?' And in fact that was my line, as it were."
Harriet: "Did you ? I don't believe I ever asked you."
David: "No, Or if I did, it was probably a late tackle."