I might suggest they cannot, and that spell of greatness happens to all good bands. How do you top your masterpiece, especially when your masterpiece defines your career for the next few decades? Some bands arrive beyond the madness (i.e. Pearl Jam), and others still continue to climb and remain in their gentle spirits. Other bands play baseball arenas or small clubs, and there is nothing wrong with that. But, when you have struck gold and the fans are at your feet, how do these great bands handle the passage of time and breath of a new age of music?
These questions arise as I listen to the Counting Crows new album, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings.
As a beginning fan, they have never topped their first album because we have never listened to an Adam Duritz so passionate, powerful, confused, Dylanesque. self-absorbed, and self-reflective on a record since perhaps Dylan in the 1960s. Not even Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, or Van Morrison have written lyrics on the sleeves of their internal egocentric perspectives. These great artists, particularly Dylan and Springsteen, have always reached out beyond their ordinary circumstances and spoke deeply about the changing times and the political fiascos and paradoxes harming the golden cow of the United States greed. But Duritz is a bit different. He is a confessional poet and not a political one so much.
Duritz typically does not take this external lyrical form, and maybe he should as he and his band continue to stretch the limits of their lyrical and musical visions. (Even Michael Stipe of R.E.M. has stated that he feels he writes better songs when he is writing about somebody other than himself.) Nevertheless, though the Counting Crows remain steady in their lyrical and musical certainty, I must say that this album still remains personal, self-absorbed, and powerful as it attempts to move the listeners from the mental health sometimes overwhelming Duritz and leaving them almost to the other side of the big heartache of living. Somehow, Duritz does not lie to his listeners; he does not reach to the politics of Springsteen. He tells us the truth, and we recognize that suffering will always exist with those surrounded with conditions of mental health and dissatisfaction with current existence--postmodernism at its worst and best.
Maybe that is why I like the Counting Crows so much. The band is musically sound, yet the howling or gentle voice of Duritz carries the songs to their tragic and/or uplifting conclusions. (Sounds a bit paradoxical.) And, suffering from social phobias, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and all those other mental conditions, I relate to these lyrics. I am trapped inside the songs and cages of the Counting Crows, and I feel really good about it. Damn good, in fact.
Consider the song, "Sunday," for a moment. Sunday is the worst day of the week for me. It is that return to work, and everything that is supposed to be hormonally balanced seems to drop out of my brain. I want to scream, stay buried in my room, and just disappear. Similarly, Duritz sings,
I wanna touch you for the things I'm losing
I wanna touch you for my self-respect
Give me a reason or I might stop breathing
Give me a reason why I'm soaking wet
Gotta stop breathing cuz the sky is falling
I might go out and watch the moon explode
Give me directions to the highway crossing
I'll go lie down in the middle of the road
(Note the lyric about the moon. No, I did not give him that lyric.) Okay, the lyrics may make the traditional listeners slit their wrists, but if you have experienced the darkness of depression or the disassociative disorder that has plagued Duritz's life, these lyrics are somewhat calming and explicable.
However, in a very bipolar moment, the song, "Insignificant," pulls the listeners away from this self-destructive path and asks us all how we can reach toward that significance in our lives even though simultaneously we feel like letting go or just disappearing into the sadness of our pain.
If you see me
Wading through water
Come drown in the river
Right in front of the world
You can wash your face and hands
In the stream of my anger
It's as bright as white paper
And as dark as a girl
Yes, again we have some damaging and dark lyrics, but there is something of comfort here as I recall a line from somewhere: "Come down here, for the water is fine." It is a baptismal image of self-reliance and egocentrism, but it is the troubled attempting to relate to the rest of the world and find that path from self-destruction to perfect memory of not losing, of not harming, of picking up the pieces to a broken world and feeling okay by it.
Does the album find its way out of the pieces to the broken world? Probably not!
But isn't that the most honest answer? Isn't Duritz successfully describing his journey as many honest writers do? Is the album self-obssessed? Of course! But, so am I! But, there are also sad and true moments as he croons to his listeners: "this lithium is heroin to me." Though I do not take lithium (yet), I understand. I understand. I reallly do!
There are elements of lithium to this album similar to what Bob Dylan writes, "I am trying to get to heaven before they close the door." On the other hand, Duritz is simply trying to get beyond the lithium to see the beauty of the world, and it is a tragic struggle for all singers, poets, and common people who suffer, suffer, and suffer from varying degrees of madness.
Maybe Duritz and the band should just heed my wife's advice: "Get over it!"
Is it that easy? Can we realize the moments of majesty all the time and live in the moment of joy? Have we found that white picket fence without struggling to get there? Some artists, including myself, struggle for the "getting over," and Duritz does as well when he beautifully writes and summarizes his message of redemption:
I want a white bread life
Just something ignorant and plain,
But from the walls of Michelangelo I'm dangling again
This album dangles more like a Van Gogh painting, but it dangles toward truth according to the Counting Crows. Maybe the lyrics could be more Springsteen or Wilco or move in other directions and metaphors, but U2 has been singing the same themes from the beginning of their career even though their sound changes from album to album. All artists, as U2 sings, are "stuck in a moment that we can't get out of it."
The Counting Crows shows us these moments of beauty, madness, and suffering just as they have always done from the beginning of their career.
And, they end their album as they begin it: with sheer brokenness and hope.
Have you seen the little pieces of the people we have been?
Little pieces blowing' gently on the wind
They have flown down California
They have landed in L.A.
Little pieces slowly settling on the waves
I'm one of a million pieces fallen on the ground
It's one of the reasons when we say goodbye
We'll still come around We will come around
The Counting Crows are here again. And, I cannot wait to hear their next album as Duritz continues with his lithium prophecies. I am waiting for him to come around, while I, too, the maddening writer do the same in my mental condition.
Four out of Five Stars!