Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings—-review, sort of

Let me begin with a caveat: I’m not a music critic. I’m not a professional reviewer or musician, and, quite frankly, don’t know what I’m talking about. But Counting Crows’ music has always had a place in my life, for various reasons, and my response to the new album is different than I expected. So I thought I’d throw it our into the blogosphere. Be gentle. These are just personal reflections.

(The short version: I started out not liking most of the tracks. Then David Foster Wallace died and I can’t stop playing the album. What seemed trite and pedestrian is now deeply meaningful. What failed to resonate is now rocking my soul. I guess I wasn’t depressed enough for a Counting Crows album until last week. Now, the band that used to know my confusion and delusions once again speaks to me. The album was growing on me with repeated play. After the suicide, though, I can’t find many faults with it. It probably won’t ever pluck the chords of my self-seeking and disillusioned gypsy soul the way previous albums did, but we’ve all turned a corner in our lives,  and at least I have a friend in the CD player again. The lyrics still grate a bit. But the instrumentation intrigues and the album finally feels like the old friend I’ve always found in the Counting Crows.)

The unapologetically long version:

Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings was purportedly intended as a musical chronicle of the hard living/remorseful hangover pattern most of recognize from some point in our lives. I figured the album would have little in it for me, since my Saturday nights can not have one iota in common with Adam Duritz’s, and my Sunday mornings are farther from my idea of a Sunday morning than I ever thought they would be. We’ve taken different paths, The Crows and I, and, even though we were never even on the same road, I was sure that this album wouldn’t even have a shadow of the hope-doubting, 3am-ceiling-staring, surrealist aspirational beauty I so crave from this band.

The earliest Crows’ albums hit me in two ways. Some of the surreal and intensely soul-wrenching lyrics pluck a moment of my inner world and echo its exact vibrations for the duration of the song. Others wrap me into a world I can’t know, but allow me some enormously cathartic empathy surfing. All of their early songs find me in a crowd, resonate within me, and then leave me speechless, jolted out of complacency and scanning my surroundings to find something familiar. For some reason Duritz often hits chords, metaphorically, that know me, shake me, and comfort me. Each of the early albums seemed to understand my current stage of hopeless hopefulness. The Counting Crows always felt like home, even though they left me feeling achingly isolated and out of place.

So I imagined that this album would disappoint me, not musically, but in its capacity to find and touch me. I’m sure that, on the artists’ list of creative and musical goals to accomplish, finding a way to address their hopes, joys, and mental anguish to me personally ranked somewhere around 365,741,980th. But I was willing to taste that morsel, stuck to the tread of the boots worn by some roadie who swept up after a Dublin concert.

As I expected, I have little in common with the Saturday Night Crows. I don’t particularly like “1492.” “Hanging Tree” is lovely and catchy, but foreign to everything in my dizzy life. “Los Angeles” bandies about all that I loathed about living down there, and makes me yearn for my “ghosts in San Francisco” even more. Now that I’ve moved back, and DFW found the soullessness of LA too much, I like the song infinitely more. While the Boston reference in “Walkaways” still makes me cry, “Los Angeles” and its mentions of Boston leave me cold. “Sundays” sounds fine, and “I don’t believe in anything” either. On paper I can really get into (Except the skinny girls bit, which will always be offensive for so many reasons.) “Insignificant,” is now playing incessantly in my head on runs–a good sign that this is old school Crows. I, too, don’t want to be insignificant, or feel so different. Similarly, the lyrics of “Cowboys” resonate, and the tune is wearing off its original shiny annoyingness to feel like worn old leather. In my original review draft, I was beginning to think I was just dead on the inside, in the little spaces where a batlike Adam Duritz used to hang upside down and keep watch on my neuroses while I closed my eyes for just a minute. David Foster Wallace swept the cobwebs from my terror, my anxiety, my literary mind; now the song is like a blanket on neurotic nights.

The album’s first half sounds fine, and, as I said, I’m not a skilled enough ear to tell you if their work here is genius or artistically middling. And I don’t care. They’re entitled to be brilliant in their hard living, fast driving chapter if they want. That’s not my world. Maybe it’s because the secret fears and horrifying sights the Crows used to paint just captivated me is now composed in a angry, driving, rock and roll voice that I just don’t have the energy to hear anymore. I’m getting too old for this.

And maybe that’s why the Sunday Morning Crows feel like they’re in the same neighborhood, if not actually home. I thought morning-after laments and impulses would irritate and alienate me (way to prejudge and artist’s work), but I find (probably in the desperation that comes from hoping you still find at least something worth in an old lover, else re-foment your otherwise forgotten regret) exactly what I remember and want and need in the band’s Sunday Morning section. It helps that they began the Sunday Morning segment with a ballad that aches of homesickness and nostalgia, for I groove on those motifs, always. Duritz’s surrealism is decidedly more obvious, overexplained, and approachable on this album, which irks me. But the music itself is more intense, nuanced, and compelling than earlier Crows’ orchestration. Though there were high points in previous albums (think This Desert Life’s “High Life” and its unexpected but gorgeous instrumentation), this album is more consistently arresting musically.

For example, the music on “Washington Square” weaves a classic Crows rock with a haunting Irish fairy dance, allowing each to ride over each other and fade in a phase-shifted wave oscillation kind of way. It’s intensely beautiful. The two lines come together then dance apart to create three musical stories beneath the lyrics.

I still haven’t heard most of “On Almost Any Sunday Morning” because the harmonica leads me off to other, lovely places. The lyrics of “When I Dream of Michaelangelo” frustrates me in their references to earlier songs, even though intertextual references are part of the Crows’s appeal for me. The song could be so strong on its own, with the friendless electrifying dance on vulnerable skin, that the angels’ presence irritates me. This is the place on the album I feel most strongly that Duritz’s surrealism has departed from a stream of consciousness that I can follow. I like to wend and stumble through his mind without having my hand held. This imagistic walkway seems to have airport-like, overly obvious signs proclaiming its otherworldliness. As it grows more worn with play, tough, I forget how out of place the play-by-play seems. And I cut him a whole lotta slack because I can’t have any more brilliant but tormented artists off themselves. I need these guys.

“Anyone but You” recalls August and Everything After. I’m still not in love with it, but its complex themes and chording are still working their way into my consciousness.

“You Can’t Count on Me,” like “Sundays” feels like a track from the Hard Candy album, which is not a bad thing, but that album was also running a course tangential, rather than parallel, to mine. The two songs are lovely and tied in knots and weren’t my cup of tea. Until Wallace’s death. (This repeated reference is getting old, I know, but it’s true, and cathartic to realize how one moment on a Monday totally shook me to the core, and how this album has a been a soft, neurotic place for me to nurse mself back into combobulation). I just fell into these Sunday morning songs like I do the couch at grandma’s. I don’t see them for what they are, but for the comfort of not having to think about them.

In beckoning us to dance, “Le Ballet d’Or” strikes me as a wilted, gravelling smoker’s siren song. In it I recognize the Moulin Rouge and theatrical back alley drinkers. Doesn’t mean I won’t go to the ball. Just means it’ll take a particularly remorseful morose impulse to get me to dance my cares away. Before DFW’s suicide I resented that the Crows didn’t even notice I need a babysitter before I can drag my sad old self to the dance. Now it sounds really, really nice to just forget myself in its repetition.

Even further from my reality, “On a Tuesday in Amsterdam,” takes all the compelling old elements—the highwire, the turned back, the rider—and fades them into a repetitive whimper that allows only the piano to shine. And man, does it.  Makes me think Ben Folds.

But the newest Counting Crows album ends with “Come Around,” which closely enough resembles the Crows I know, to suggest that the little pieces of me that echo with their music will again see them come around back to a reality I can recognize.

There. You have my rambling review. My overall advice is, keep listening. They’re a different band now, but if you let them into your life, they’ll start feeling as though they belong. I’m not sure yet if this album cracks my top three Crows albums. But only the top two are thus far insurrountable, so that third spot may be theirs, if life keeps playing out the way it is this fall.

(Side note, YouTube is a conflicting place for me. I was all excited, in an unrelated Google search, to find a clip of the band playing Washington Square on lower Sproul. Talk about surreal. It never occurred to me, as a music lover not a star f*cker, to ever research the singers, songwriters, or bands that make the music I love. I don’t know about personal lives, I don’t listen to interviews, and I don’t visit fan sites. I like the music I like, and that’s it. I don’t even go to concerts. So it was unsettling to see Duritz on Sproul , only because I always thought that hearing his music and thinking of Berkeley, of successes and failures under the broad-reaching halo of theCapanile , was coincidence. Thinking now that I might have heard Berkeley in his music because there IS Berkeley in his music, that an iota ofDuritz and a particle of me link through Oski’s bloodline is more than strange. And I don’t have time to rethink all my Counting Crows associations, the bulk of which are either from Boston missing California or from California missing a me I was trying to be. So I’m kind of mad to have found those videos. And I’m not linking to them, ‘cuz I’m still a little discombobulated about it all. It feels like a one-night stand you only barely remember, having formed all your stories and meanings about it in a vacuum, then hearing the real story from the real person rather than the idealization.)

David Foster Wallace

In grad school, the professors wouldn’t let me write my thesis on Infinite Jest because none of them had read it, and when they saw that it topped 1100 pages (I don’t have my copy to give you precise numbers, I just moved and don’t have anything in the fridge and need to go shopping but can’t get past a long day of running around after a toddler with a heart heavy from the pain of DFW’s death thudding around in my stomach, and am not in the best mood, so bear with me on estimates) of densely packed text and endnotes sheer rambling genius, they balked at the workload reading both his novel and my thesis would bring to their carefully balanced lives.

I resented their laziness. Then I changed topics and vowed one day to write an erudite lit-crit analysis of the text. Especially because Wallace excelled at but distrusted literary criticism. But shite happened and I haven’t gotten around to it.

I blogged about a month ago that I felt disconnected from the world when I realized Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had been dead for three days before I knew. It was as though my sadness didn’t count any more because I had missed the window.

This time, the world rotated twice before I knew DFW died. The announcement rocked me to the core but didn’t change my day. And that, itself, saddens me because it means my life is so shifted off its base that the shockingly early death of one of my top five creative inspirations doesn’t even rate a schedule change. The rest of my week, though, shuddered and sputtered as the implications of his death sunk in.

And I don’t know what to say. I’ve known for two days and I don’t know what to say. (Updating this weeks later, I’m still not done processing my grief.) His writing changed me. I saw him speak once (thanks MPB and SBB) and his speaking did not change me. The creepy cult curiously smarmy cadre of followers did not change me. I was rarely tempted to quit my job and run off to Pomona to be his student, because I didn’t feel any need to be connected with him personally. I didn’t want to be taught by him or to talk with him or to write for him. I wanted to read his work.

And now there won’t be more.

I may be silly to feel his death as a weighty presence in my life. The man himself had no presence in my life. His characters, their actions, their idiosyncrasies, their seismically surreal lives had a transient presence in my life. But all I have to do is recall the cover of his weighty novel and I can again touch the intellectual dance of reading it. I can feel my hunger for more as I read myself bleary-eyed for the entire summer of 1997 (I was busy in the summer of 1996. I didn’t pick up IJ because of the grant. I picked it up because I wanted a book that would ensure nobody would talk to me on BART, a la The Accidental Tourist. But I loved it intensely then, and would love to reread it now.) I can feel my connection and revulsion and confusion at Wallace’s characters every time someone says his name.

And I want more. I’m angry and disappointed that there won’t be more.

I loved his lobster piece for Gourmet magazine. I love that he took the job, puzzled at the pop cultural status that brought him such tangential work, and I loved his rambling thoroughness. I loved that he came to the conclusion that it’s just not okay to boil creatures alive.

I haven’t read the obits. I don’t even know how he died. (I found out later and wrote a horrible post on this blog, of which I am embarrassed but which I will not erase.) I don’t care how he died. This is not a Jeff Buckley story or a Kurt Cobain story or a River Phoenix story. I wish I knew what kind of story this is. All I know is that the woot from Sept. 16 made me feel all too keenly that nobody will take DFW’s place.

And now all I can think is, I hope all you bastard literary canon snobs will read his work, because you missed the boat the first time. When I write my PhD dissertation on his work and one of you lazy self preserving pricks says you haven’t read it, I will produce all the contemporary fiction on the shelves and say, “well, it’s better than and worse than and different than this….And it’s all we have left.”

The Macarthur grant bit always forces the genius label. I don’t know that he was genius. I just know I really love reading his writing. I don’t even know that I love his writing itself. I love the experience of reading it. And that is the ultimate compliment for an author. I don’t even love your work, man. I just love what it does to my head.

We’re all going to miss you, and our minds are poorer now that yours is silent. I hope, at least, that the pain is gone.