“You can’t keep your shit together / When God is on your side / What chance do you have when he’s not around.”
About a year ago, Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz said in an interview for this very website that the guys in his band thought that the album they were writing at the time, Somewhere Under Wonderland, would feature some of the best lyrics the singer has ever written. It wasn’t finished then, but from what his mates had already heard, they were certain that Duritz’s words would resonate the same way they did back in 1993, when August And Everything After worked its way into the sad hearts of millions of fans.
It takes until the seventh track on Wonderland to let go of all the skepticism that such an assessment might conjure. “Cover Up The Sun”, the bluegrass-iest the band has ever been in a studio, eventually embodies expectation when just after the two-minute mark, the singer offers that line: “You can’t keep your shit together / When God is on your side / What chance do you have when he’s not around.” Say what you want about “Mr. Jones” or “A Long December”, but Adam Duritz is the only guy alive who can get away with that passage and make it work. It just took six years to reclaim that distinction.
Because that’s how long it’s been since the band’s criminally and preposterously overlooked set, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, floated through the airwaves. Until Somewhere Under Wonderland, those 14 songs made a strong case to earn that best-of title with lines like “They say good evening when they don’t know what to say / They say good morning when they wish you would go home,” on “Hanging Tree”. If anything, that pseudo-concept collection, divided into the sonic equivalent of a ruckus night out and the morning after, proved that Counting Crows were only getting better with age.
And with Somewhere Under Wonderland, that argument takes more than one step forward.
You needn’t look much further than the first track to understand that. “Palisades Park”, the lead single from the album, is a brave attempt at a multi-movement opus that utilizes the band’s ambition perfectly within the parameters of what they do best: piano-driven, old-guard rock with lush vocal harmonies and Durtiz’s vividly moving storytelling chops. Yeah, it eventually bubbles over into the type of pop you’d expect to hear from them, but this time, its parts allow its sum to feel fresher than its felt in decades. To call it sprawling would be an understatement of grand proportion.
Unsurprisingly, then, that precise imagination gives the song’s brothers and sisters more levity. How do you go from an 8:18 opera to a three-and-a-half minute ditty that kind of sounds like it should have been on the Rushmore soundtrack? The Crows pull it off with “Earthquake Driver”, a very catchy and very swinging ode to existential crises. Lyrically, Duritz is on fire when he offers, “So what is the point of this famous self absorption / We turn ourselves into orphans and then spend our nights alone / Living in fear of some kind of imaginary consequence / Terror incognito, ob-la-di libido.” It’s the sound of flippant acceptance that cuts too deep.
Better yet is the fact that they can still slow it down as poignantly as they did when they first said goodnight to Elizabeth. “Possibility Days” is heartbreaking and desperate, if only for how candid the singer sounds in his delivery. He’s always done a good job of convincing us he’s hurt, but these days, that hurt is grown up. And grown-up hurt will forever sound far more defeated than any other blend of pain. Still not convinced? Check out “God of Ocean Tides”, when Duritz offers this gem: “I know I said I never loved you / But I might / Just try again tonight.”
Still, it doesn’t get much better than the one-two punch of “Cover Up The Sun” and “John Appleseed’s Lament”. It’s always felt like they’ve wanted to go full-on Mumford and Sons, anyway, and with the former, they accomplish just that, the tempo kicked up like the train traveling from New Orleans To Texas that Duritz sings about. The song just must slay in a live setting.
The latter, meanwhile, slightly recalls “A Murder Of One” in the way that says, “Get out of the way, music, and let Duritz just go.” So, he does, despite the musical repetition of the verses. Most curious is it provides a rare moment of Adam Duritz referring to himself as Adam Duritz in the context one of his own songs. It’s during a frustrated exchange between the singer and a lover and it works in a way that makes the operation feel so much more personal than these guys have ever felt before. Which is weird, obviously, because they are such a personal band.
And they’re also a fearless band. Twenty-one years after the Counting Crows’ debut breakthrough cut between the rock radio noise and launched this band’s career, they are still finding ways to win the battle against irrelevancy. What other early ’90s alt-pop-rock band can say that? Don’t try to call it a comeback or a resurgence or some other dismissive, backhanded compliment, because between August and Recovering The Satellites, they got better. Between Recovering The Satellites and This Desert Life, they got better. Ditto for Hard Candy and then ditto for Saturday Nights.
The best part about Somewhere Under Wonderland? Yes, that trajectory keeps its pace, but it also assures anyone still listening that in 21 years, that story probably won’t be any different. And such will be true, even if God isn’t on their side.