City Paper is not for tourists
This is where I come out of the closet. I recently admitted the secret to my girlfriend. She was shocked and felt as if she had failed me, but I kept telling her, “It’s not you—it’s Adam.” She began to cry. It’s a feeling I’ve had since 1994, but didn’t feel comfortable with until 1996. It’s taken me three more years of furtive flirting, then awkward public displays of affection, to come clean and admit to my double life: music critic and Counting Crows fan.
There is a stigma attached to the Crows—or, more specifically, singer and bandleader Adam Duritz—among rock critics and snobbish music fans. From his self-pitying tales of simultaneously wanting to be a big star and loved by that special someone that define the band’s 1993 debut, August and Everything After, to his self-pitying tales of being a big star and still wanting to be loved by that special someone—despite famously dating two special ones from Friends—that made up 1996’s Recovering the Satellites, Duritz is a man obsessed with himself. Of course, his personal narcissism isn’t really all that personal; there’s plenty of art that documents the artist’s struggle, if it’s a struggle to find a date. It’s Duritz’s bald passion and the listen-to-me cries in his singing voice—which early on sounded sort of like Van Morrison during a temper tantrum—that are ripe for parody. But if you believe in Duritz—and millions of album sales prove that people do—you can buy into the Crows.
“I don’t think you should ever be scared of pretension. I believe deeply in pretension. Otherwise you never do anything,” Duritz told www.wallofsound.com. It’s exactly the sort of artistic unselfconsciousness that permits Duritz to sing from the gut and open up his heart every time he opens up his mouth. It’s a style of singing and songwriting that’s popular in punk, with poppy emocore bands like Promise Ring and Sunny Day Real Estate garnering solid underground followings. But because the Crows are the musical children of the Band, Bob Dylan, and Morrison, there is no cachet to the group’s style among punkers.
Unlike fellow emotively streaming mainstream rockers, like Matchbox 20’s constipated crooner, Rob Thomas, and Live’s puke-inducing yelper, Ed Kowalczyk, Duritz can actually undersell a song and still make it feel as if he’s letting it all hang out. Duritz’s ability to tone it down but still convey heartfelt emotion is abundantly clear on the “VH1 Storytellers” disc from 1998’s Across a Wire double live CD. Here the standout rave-up from Satellites, “Angels of the Silences,” is turned into an accordion-flavored, countrified number with three-part harmonies. And August hits “Rain King” and “Round Here” are recast as ballads sung not from the middle of some toiling emotional pit—as they are in the original versions—but from atop a mountain, where Duritz looks down on his words with some distance and still conveys the feelings he initially intended.
On the Counting Crows’ new CD, This Desert Life, Duritz further tones down the persona without losing the person. The topics are still the same—it’s tough being a rock star with your whole life on display—but Duritz now sings with confidence rather than simple abandon. He even displays a sense of humor among all the yearning. The album begins with “hanginaround,” a track that at first sounds like the Crows covering potential one-hit wonder Len and that band’s exceedingly catchy summer single, “Steal My Sunshine.” The drums are hip, and the piano hops, like the buoyant keyboards normally heard on a dance track. There are studio chatter, big harmonies, and handclaps, giving the song a joyous live-in-the-studio vibe. Unlike John Mellencamp on his failed electronica-meets-roots-rock album, Mr. Happy Go Lucky, the Crows don’t follow musical trends to make the dusty rock danceable. They just groove with a Beach Boys Party-like glee.
Duritz also gets goofy on This Desert Life’s unnamed hidden track, which appears long after the end of the last song, “St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream.” Before he sings on this loosey-goosey bonus cut, Duritz says, “Check my shit,” and during the collagelike ending he acts like a crazed NASA engineer by eating the mike and deadpanning, “Mandolin is go for recording…#Vocals…I need a go/no go for recording…#All systems are go…T minus five…
But this is a Counting Crows, not a Chris Rock, album, and the rest of the songs follow Duritz’s travels along the heart’s highway. “Amy Hit the Atmosphere” is another one of Duritz’s ballads about sad girls, joining Maria in “Round Here,” and the titular characters of “Anna Begins” and “Goodnight Elisabeth,” among many others. “Things are getting worse, but I feel a lot better/And that’s all that really matters to me,” Duritz sings over the waltz of a loose snare drum, watery organ, and tremoloed guitar.
On “I Wish I Was a Girl,” Duritz desires to be one of the lonely females he so often sings about. “The devil’s in the dream/And he tells you I’m not sleeping in my hotel room alone,” he croons. Elisabeth (her again?) has it in her head that he’s gone astray, so Duritz sings, “I wish I was a girl/So that you could believe me/And I could shake this static/Every time I try to sleep.”
Like in “I Wish I Was a Girl,” the roles of rock star and serious partner get analyzed on “Four Days,” a driving rocker about being weary of the road while riding through the dreary nightscape of Ohio. And on the ever-building and exceedingly catchy “High Life,” Duritz sings, “This desert life…#I wasn’t made for the scene, baby./ I wasn’t made in the scene, baby, it’s just my way…I want to come on home to you.”
During the R.E.M.-like piano ballad “Colorblind,” Duritz surprisingly seeks someone to help him emotionally open up, asking, “Pull me out from inside/I am ready, I am,” before admitting—as the cellos fade in—”I am covered in skin/No one gets to come in.” In the past, Duritz would have ended the song with a big vocal and musical crescendo, rather than simply letting it quietly conclude.
“Colorblind” and “All My Friends” are also the type of songs that Duritz’s critics will hold up as examples of his lyrical naval-gazing. “All my friends and lovers leave me behind and I’m still looking for a girl,” he sings on the latter, finishing the last line with his cowpoke overenunciation. Later, Bacharach & David-quality strings join him on the bridge, as he sings “Can you see her? Waiting there for someone like me?”
Fans will love it. Everyone else will call for Duritz’s dreadlocked head. As a rock star complaining, Duritz knows that his dreamer pleas for escape can be viewed as sour grapes. But he also knows the value of continuing to dream despite being in the “martyr machine,” as he calls showbiz on “St. Robinson.” On the country-rocker “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” whose seven-plus-minute run-time blows by like a warm breeze, Duritz sings, “I am an idiot walking a tightrope of fortune and fame.” But he also sings, “If you’ve never stared off into the distance, then your life is a shame.”
There is no shame in loving This Desert Life—or Adam Duritz. Hey punk, hey raver, hey music critic—open up and embrace a new kind of love. CP