RATING: 4.5 / 5 stars
By Chris Moore:
In his personal liner notes, Adam Duritz thanks several people for “sticking by our vision for this album in the face of pretty much universal disapproval. Records SHOULD be what they’re MEANT to be.” In many ways, these notes help to tie Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings to the much larger tradition of the concept album.
Consider the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, arguably the first concept album. The Fab Four had to lock themselves away from all other distractions – including photo shoots and even live concert tours – to make what many consider to be their masterpiece. The Moody Blues were never meant to record Days of Future Passed; it was only as a result of convincing their producer to change course that this classic concept album was created. Brian Wilson arguably lost his mind in the pursuit of SMiLE, his masterpiece of an incomplete concept album that drew him back into the studio four decades later to finish it.
To compare this new Counting Crows album with the best of the Beatles, Moody Blues, and Beach Boys would be misguided; it is simply too recent to hold up to the classics. Still, this is one of the Counting Crows’ most compelling offerings and perhaps the strongest album of the year. Why, you ask? Not only do the songs shine – rocking and reflecting at the appropriate times – respectively, but the album concept unites each separate thread into a larger thought that holds up after and indeed invites multiple listens.
The album opens – rather, explodes – with the first track’s thundering drum roll and massive distortion guitar. “1492” is a personal narrative that establishes the setting and the narrator’s “dark Italian underground” exploits in a private world of “disco lights,” sexual encounters with “skinny girls,” and “mornings spreading out across the feathered thighs of angels.” Duritz’s songs have often shown interest in angelic imagery – consider his band’s first hit with “Angels of the Silences,” for one – but the imagery is tipped on its head for this album. Initially, the darkness is shocking. It is darkness that leads to the repeated question in the chorus, “Where do we disappear?” The narrator’s personal history becomes intertwined with an interesting take on Columbus and the events of 1492, a final chorus about the “people who impersonate our friends,” and then, with a final bang on the drums and harsh down stroke on the strings of the electric guitar, it’s over just as abruptly as it started.
The first half of the album is devoted to the Saturday Nights portion of the concept. The “dizzy life” that is described in “Hanging Tree” is further fleshed out in the scene-setting “Los Angeles,” and more personal details are divulged in “Sundays” – an opening mention of “coloured rubbers” followed by a description of the narrator’s conception (“My mother made me out of flesh and wine”) leads to the choral confession that he doesn’t believe in Sundays. Time and again on this first half of the album, the songs are rock n’ roll through and through; solos and driving beats are par for the course. And yet this is not at the expense of artistry. Duritz’s imagery is poetic and pulls no punches; the reference to Sundays conjures religious imagery, and although he professes not to believe in them, these tracks smack of a trip to a confessional.
The final two tracks of the Saturday Nights portion make good on the promise of “1492.” With “Insignificant,” he returns to that feeling of disappearance, declaring “I don’t want to be insignificant.” “Cowboys,” the sixth and final track of the first half, provides the perfect transition as Duritz sings, “I’ll wait for you as Saturday’s a memory, and Sunday comes to gather me into the arms of God Who’ll welcome me because I believe, oh, I believe…” This is a shift from his statements in “Sundays” and brings God directly into the picture. Duritz’s final words of the track set a mission statement of sorts for the remainder of the album – “Oh, I will make you look at me… Or I am not anything.”
So ends the Saturday Nights segment of the album; the Sunday Mornings portion begins with the subdued acoustic picking, gently fingered piano, and deliberately plucked standup bass of “Washington Square.” Harmonica and a distant electric guitar join the sound of the largely acoustic arrangement of “On Almost Any Sunday Morning.” The lyrics fit the tone of the music aptly, sparse and raw as they are. It is interesting to note that both of these tracks were written by Duritz alone, perhaps adding to the personal feel of these tracks.
Just as “Washington Square” and “On Almost Any Sunday Morning” are songs of despair and desolation, the next two tracks find the narrator beginning to pick up the pieces. In “When I Dream of Michelangelo” Duritz sings, “I want a white bread life, just something ignorant and plain, but from the walls of Michelangelo I’m dangling again.” In a sense, the conception of the album is explained through this song, even as the narrator sings of that connection to the great painter. This brings many aspects together, most notably the religious imagery and the desire of an artist to communicate. “Anyone But You” kicks off with a haunting organ and quickly falls under the domain of a steady drum beat. The message of this track? Well, although he admits “I’m almost ready – it’s almost true – for almost anyone but you,” he ends up returning repeatedly to the simple statement, “I think about you.”
It is in this song that the album really comes together. Even as drums return to the mix for the first time since the transition to the Sunday Mornings section, the singer’s dilemma is clear: after his wild “Saturday nights” and his reflections on his life, God, angels, women, and more, he can only think of this one unnamed woman.
In the next track, the truth comes clearly crashing down.
“You Can’t Count On Me,” the first single from Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, lays it all out there – the narrator clearly addresses that aforementioned woman (described here as “just my toy and I can’t stop playing with you, baby”), and he admits that “There’s just one thing you need to know and that’s that you can’t count on me.” Not exactly a declaration of love and selfless devotion, this clearly carries with it the same blatant, raw honesty that the previous tracks have been imbued with.
From the opening chords, “Le Ballet D’Or” plays out like a dream sequence characterized by Duritz’s reflections and realizations. These set up what is perhaps the most minimalist track on the album; Charlie Gillingham’s piano and Adam Duritz’s vocals are all that you get with “On a Tuesday in Amsterdam Long Ago.” The vocals, probably the most raw of the record, lead up to the ragged, repetitive pleading by Duritz – “Come back to me.”
The album might have left off on this note, leaving the resolution open ended and the final note a somber one. Instead, the next track begins deceptively with an acoustic guitar and piano that fade momentarily before being replaced by the first distortion guitar since “Cowboys” and perhaps the most rousing drum beat and bass line of the album. Duritz’s voice returns to form as he leads the band in “Come Around,” the only track on Sunday Mornings not produced by James Brown. Rather, this track was produced by Gil Norton, the producer for the six tracks of Saturday Nights.
Thus, “Come Around” effectively brings this concept full circle, promising in the chorus “We’ll still come around.” Yes, there is pain on the Sunday mornings…
But that won’t stop Duritz from coming back to the Saturday nights time and again. If nothing else, they certainly make for good songwriting – and this concept makes for a rocking, raw, and overall excellent album.