There was a six-year gap between Hard Candy and the newest album from Counting Crows, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings and the band has emerged from the recording hiatus swinging hard enough that the record carries a warning – no, not one of those Tipper Gore-inspired parental advisory warnings. This comes with a warning from lead singer Adam Duritz:
"Don't make that same mistake you've all been making for four records," he said. "I've written four records of examples of why you should stay a mile from me."
Anyone who thought contributing a song to the Shrek 2 soundtrack was a sign of happier times ahead was obviously wrong. This is not an album of banal platitudes set to happy little melodies. At one point Duritz wondered if this was really the kind of record he wanted to release.
"I didn't release that record because I thought, 'Oh, wow, you're a fuckin' wreck. Why would you want to release this record?'" he said. "I released it because I thought, 'Oh, wow, you're a fuckin' wreck. That's kind of interesting. Everybody should see that.'"
Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is an ambitious effort from a band that has never been afraid to push itself. It is a vivid snapshot inside the mind of someone who desperately wants to make that connection but is perpetually thwarted. Thwarted, in this case, by a mental illness.
This is not a concept album in the prog rock sense, it's two separate albums sharing the same CD. The band even worked with two different producers for each album. Gil Norton produced the visceral, electrified Saturday Nights, Brian Deck produced the contemplative, somber Sunday Mornings. There is no chronological narrative a la Tommy, but when placed together the two albums paint a picture.
During our interview, he gave listeners an unofficial guide to make their way through the record, particularly the songs on Sunday Mornings.
"Saturday Nights is about going insane and becoming untethered from the world and losing your mind because pain is too much and numbness is good," he said. "Sunday Mornings is about – you wake up numb and you don't want to be that way anymore. You're trying to change but you don't have the skills to do it. You can't stand the closeness and when you try to feel it hurts."
The insanity on Saturday Nights might seem fun on the surface, but as you listen to Sunday Mornings you realize that Duritz isn't talking about being the life of the party. The numbing of the mind is about escape and not fun. It's not even about the fun kind of escape. If listeners miss that, Sunday Mornings is there to underscore the point. Perhaps no song on the record is a better illustration of that action-reaction relationship between the two than "On Almost Any Sunday Morning."
"That's a pretty devastating song," he said. "That may be the most subtly painful moment on the record. It's a song about waking up next to someone and just being so horrified and just… crawling out of your skin… it's like you can't stand being next to them and you just want them to go away so badly. You're angry at yourself for believing something as insubstantial as feelings or love could actually mean something, and they go. What's worse is the realization that you need to go out and do it again — to bring someone home — because you can't face being home alone and then, even worse in a way, is what you realize you have to do to achieve that. You have to wipe away all the vestiges of who you are, empty yourself out because if anyone sees who you really are they're not coming home with you. 'Wash your eyes clear of anything/make them empty circles/dress yourself in black or grey.'"
"On Almost Any Sunday" might be the most painful moment on the record, but Duritz believes "You Can't Count On Me" is the ugliest moment, and that's why he didn't want it released as the first single.
"I do wish 'You Can't Count on Me' wasn't a single," he said. "I see why they made it one, but it runs a real danger of being 'Born in the U.S.A.' where everyone just gets it wrong. It's pretty in ways and it comes off as sounding like you can count on me – like a pretty song that someone stupidly put ugly, distorted guitars on top of. They (the record company) actually asked us to take the ugly, distorted guitars off of it. 'Can we remix this for the single mix?' No. 'In fact, here's the mix we've done.' Now keep it to yourself because it's fucking horrible. Well, it wasn't fucking horrible, it's just wrong."
"You Can't Count On Me" is central to the Sunday Mornings part of the record, sequenced in the middle of those songs as a reminder.
"It's about, 'Yeah, I've ended a million relationships and yeah, I can write really eloquently about them because I am sad about them being over and I can write a beautiful sad song about them being over but do not confuse that with me being better because the turnaround is all those ugly lines," he said. "'(You) watch the sky/It's a pale parade of passing clouds/That cover the bed upon which we laid in the dark/and the memories that I made of a laughing girl.'
"Those are the memories he and the girl share and its sad and you might want them back but the next line is 'but you're just my toy and I can't stop playing with you.'"
That's a pretty cold sentiment and Duritz knows it.
"'You Can't Count on Me' is about that — uglier than I actually am," he said. "'All this pain gets me high and I get off.' Well, I'm not really that way but I might as well be because – what started to occur to me at that point is you can have all the good intentions in the world. I don't cheat on people, I'm a good guy. If you hurt people over and over again, does it really matter? By the same token if you have all the worst intentions in the world and the most selfish motives, if you do good things, does it matter? I don't know. I'm not sure."
Most artists have, on some level, a desire to have their work understood. For Duritz it seems all the more important that his work be understood because he and his art are inextricably linked. Understanding Counting Crows' music may not reveal all there is to no about the man, but it seems virtually impossible to understand the man without understanding the work. That link between life and art is something Duritz explores in "When I Dream of Michaelanegelo."
"'Michaelangelo,' you're dreaming about reaching something divine in your art but you realize – the real point of that song is you've spent your whole life reaching for something and you forgot to touch anyone real," he said. "You have no connections to real people… the guy is starting to realize that he could change but not in time for her. He can't keep himself focused on her so he's going to leave her."
The lyrics don't leave much hope for redemption but the final notes of "Come Around" haven't completely crushed those hopes, either. Maybe it's because there's an optimist in you, hoping that all the pain and loathing leads to something more than an incredible record. It could also be guilt working – guilt that you see more of yourself in some of the dark corners of the record than you'd like to admit or guilt because you've enjoyed a record born of so much pain for so many people.