Saturday, March 26, 2016

Counting Crows - Somewhere Under Wonderland

“When I look at the television I want to see me staring right back at me,” Adam Duritz sang on “Mr. Jones,” way the hell back in 1993. At the time, he was a 29-year-old guy with some deep emotional scars and a lot of ambition, singing about how he wanted to be a “big, big star” on the song that ironically made him just that. Fast-forward 21 years, though (yes, August and Everything After is indeed almost old enough to drink) and it’s clear that Duritz could no longer care less about being on TV or having his name known around the world. In fact, he’d probably prefer it if nobody knew his name at this point.

That much is evidenced by “Palisades Park,” the opening track and first single from Somewhere Under Wonderland, Counting Crows’ seventh official LP. The song is the antithesis of “radio friendly”: it goes on for eight and a half minutes, ricochets through half a dozen tempo shifts, and has no discernable verse/chorus dynamic. Instead, the song hews a lot closer to what you might hear from a live Counting Crows album, starting off with an intimate trumpet reverie and ending with what sounds like one of Duritz’s trademark improvisational sections. In between, we get plenty of striking melodies, at least a dozen quotable lyrics (“Tomorrow’s the name we changed from yesterday to blame when the train just don’t stop here anymore” is an instant Duritz classic), and an arrangement that shows off the Crows at their loosest and most vibrant.

“Palisades Park” also makes one thing immediately clear: Somewhere Under Wonderland is not August and Everything After. Those looking for a set of “Round Here” or “Long December” rewrites would be advised to look elsewhere. However, listeners who are willing to take the trip will be treated to the most raucous and unpredictable album the Crows have ever made. Recalling E Street Shuffle-era Springsteen, “Palisades Park” circles through a dense, wordy narrative centered around a New Jersey theme park that shut its gates in 1971. It also introduces us to a character named Andy, who the song suggests is going through a deep struggle with gender identification. Duritz flips chaotically back and forth between “he” and “she” pronouns throughout, just as the song itself accelerates and decelerates like the roller coasters at the titular theme park.

There’s so much imagery and lyricism going on here, in fact, that it’s incredibly difficult to parse the overall meaning of “Palisades Park.” But the ambiguity is welcome. The Crows’ last full-length album of original material, 2008’s Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, was a record devoid of subtlety, a record with good songs that often buckled under the weight of the album’s own ambitious, self-important premise. With that album, Duritz was trying to create a conceptual piece that was half about debauchery and mistakes (the loud and electric Saturday Nights portion) and half about redemption and renewal (the more acoustic-driven Sunday Mornings half). He ended up making a bloated record with a tiring and all-too-literal fall-and-rise concept, and the songs suffered as a result.

Here, Duritz has taken some of the looseness of his band’s excellent 2012 cover album, Underwater Sunshine, coupled it with the roots sounds of 1999’s This Desert Life (and a little bit of the straight-ahead rock and roll that defined 1996’s Recovering the Satellites), and made an incredibly lyrical and meaningful album that rocks hard but still finds moments for intimacy. This album sounds like it could have been recorded live, from the improvisational feel of “Palisades Park” to the sublime 1-2 punch of spontaneous rock songs (“Earthquake Driver” and “Dislocation”) that fill out the middle part of Side A. Those two songs are proof positive of how tight this entire band has become over the past two decades. Handclaps skitter through “Earthquake Driver” like skipping stones; Charlie Gillingham’s radiant keys flutter in the background as the entire band joins in for lush barbershop back-up harmonies, the likes of which we haven’t heard since 2002’s pop-centric Hard Candy; and of course, guitarist Dan Vickrey gives the entire project it’s gasoline, his snarling lead guitar riffs beautifully complementing the more subtle guitar work of band members David Bryson and David Immergluck.

It’s hard not to point to Underwater Sunshine as the genesis stone for Somewhere Under Wonderland. I struggled with Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings because I thought it was overproduced; many people had the same issue with Hard Candy and its shimmering pop sheen. Underwater Sunshine, on the other hand, gave the band a chance to just play, without worrying about sounding like a mainstream pop or rock band. Part of the reason for the looseness was that the album was a completely independent venture: the band recorded it on a summer vacation, self-producing the songs and releasing the thing on Cooking Vinyl, a UK indie label. The other defining factor of that collection—that the band was covering their favorite artists instead of playing their own songs—allowed them to ditch the perfectionism that had locked their more recent records into a less at-ease place. The result was, in many ways, the first time that Counting Crows really captured the energy and spontaneity of their live show on record.

Luckily, the band applies everything they learned on Underwater Sunshine to this album, even though they’re back on a major label (Capitol) and even though producer Brian Deck, who handled the Saturday Mornings part of 2008’s record, is back behind the boards. The fact that most of the covers on Underwater Sunshine were of Americana acts like Bob Dylan and Dawes also means that Somewhere Under Wonderland is the most roots-focused album that Counting Crows have recorded since the 1990s. The rollicking “Cover up the Sun” is a sunburnt country number with a clear Dylan influence, while “Elvis Went to Hollywood” was meant for a heartland road trip, from the relentless beat of Jim Bogios’ drums to the "Rainbow Road" synths that pierce through the texture on the song’s home stretch. And “God of Ocean Tides,” the achingly beautiful acoustic number that closes out the record’s first side, is a kaleidoscope beauty which shows that—even at the heart of a pure summer rock album—Adam Duritz can still pen a timeless folk ballad.

I know I’ve found an album I love when I feel like I’m cheating certain songs by not mentioning them in a review, and that’s certainly the case here. After all, how can I talk about what makes Somewhere Under Wonderland so brilliant without mentioning “Scarecrow,” a classic Counting Crows song that could have so easily fit on This Desert Life? Or “John Appleseed’s Lament,” where Duritz resurrects Maria, namedrops himself for the first time on record, and spits out some of his cleverest lines ever (“Oh, I cigarette the winter air, then I Fred Astaire my way down Seventh Street”)? At nine tracks, Somewhere Under Wonderland may be concise, but it’s also stacked with quality material.

And then there’s “Possibility Days,” this album’s closing track, and one of the best songs Adam Duritz has ever written. In a way, “Possibility Days” is like “Round Here.” Both have this immense lyrical beauty, this poetic build and flow that feels like it’s never going to end, but is just going to keep spiraling and morphing and hitting new moments of clarity forever; new lyrics you’ll internalize and carry with you for years to come; new words and phrases that, like “Step out the front door like a ghost into a fog where no one notices the contrast of white on white,” convince you that you are listening to one of the best songwriters ever; lyrics that I’ll just quote, en masse, because my words can’t do justice to their splendor and beauty.

"You can run out of choices and still hear a voice in your head when you’re lying bed
And it says that the best part of a bad day is knowing it’s okay
The color of everything changes
The sky rearranges its shade, and your smile doesn’t fade
Into a phone call and one bad decision we made
And the worst part of a good day is the one thing you don’t say
And you don’t know how but you wish there was some way
So you pull down the shades and you shut out the light
Because somehow we mixed up goodbye and goodnight"

If you spend a long enough period of time with a band, you are bound to eventually hit a point where they disappoint you. That disappointment could come in the form of an album you don’t like, or in the shape of a hiatus that lasts too long, but whatever the reason, there comes a point in time where the bands we love the most have been so built up and mythicized in our own heads that we wonder how they could ever possibly measure up.

Part of it is the music itself: no one expects Bruce Springsteen to make another Born to Run because that kind of masterpiece is one of a kind. But another part is our own nostalgia, our own expectations. August & Everything After was the first album I ever remember hearing in full, and I am the music lover I am today partially because of the decisions I made to buy Films About Ghosts and Hard Candy at my local Borders back in 2004. How can any new material from these guys measure up to that legacy? How can anything possibly replicate the way it feels to scream along to “Round Here” when you're driving alone at 2 a.m. and it feels like there's no one else on planet earth? Or that deep nostalgic feeling I get when I listen to “A Long December” and hear “And all at once you look across a crowded room to see the way that light attaches to a girl,” arguably my favorite lyric of all time?

In the wake of Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, an album I didn’t love—not to mention the two very lengthy hiatuses that have broken up the band’s last three albums of original material—I began to think that I had the answer to those two questions. And the answer was “nothing.” As far as I was concerned, there was nothing these guys could ever do again that would recapture the sublimely personal connection I have with their first four albums, no way that they could make a new record that would make me feel the way I felt when I heard Hard Candy or August & Everything After for the first time.

It is the deepest compliment that I can pay to Somewhere Under Wonderland to say that I was wrong.

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