Counting Crows: "1492; When I Dream of Michelangelo; You Can't Count on Me"

from Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings (Geffen; 2008)

By Craig Eley | 8 February 2008

A friend of mine who teaches writing just told me a prompt she gave to her students: “We all have a science teacher story, and this is mine.” To facilitate creativity, you could substitute anything for “science teacher,” like wisdom teeth, car accident, petty theft, whatever. You see where I’m going here.

We all have a Counting Crows story, and this is mine.

I’m kidding. I would never do that to you, but only because the truth is it would be hard to pick just one, and many of them are very fond, and involve beautiful young women whom I didn’t know how to love and embarrassing poetry. There might be a few legitimate reasons to give one shit what the Counting Crows are up to (August and Everything After is still one), but mine is pure nostalgia. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I used to be sloppy in my underage drunkenness and young relationships, and during this time I loved the Counting Crows.

I understand that in certain context this position might jeopardize my personal well-being. If I remember correctly, someone told me about a Les Savy Fav show in New York City a few years back where Tim Harrington said, “If the person beside you ever liked the Counting Crows, then punch them in the face.” Or something like that. So if that’s the trip you’re on, well: truce? I like Les Savy Fav!

Anyhow, Adam Duritz and Geffen Records have had the Crows on “career revival mode” for many months now, starting with the deluxe reissue treatment for August last year and culminating with the release of their new single “You Can’t Count on Me” yesterday via digital retailers. It marks the fifth (!) leaked or pre-released track from Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, alongside “Cowboy,” “Come Around,” “1492,” and “When I Dream of Michelangelo.” The last two comprise a Digital 45 that is currently available to download for free from the Counting Crows website. It’s with all these tracks floating around that I can justify such a long “track” review, by the way. But to put a finer point on it, it’s also because from what I’ve heard so far, I want nothing to do with the rest of this album, especially to have to review it. Leave me with my happy memories, okay?

The irony is that our memories are exactly what Mr. Duritz and company present us with on these slew of releases that are now loose in the wild. Maintaining the same tightness in their sound that makes the Crows so readily listenable isn’t a crime in and of itself, but when coupled with the imagery of drug use, butterflies, celebrity skin, and boredom that Druritz has used for his whole career now, the music as a whole seems strikingly regressive. The title of the Counting Crows unfortunate mid-career greatest hits record, Films About Ghosts, is appropriate here when placed back into its larger context from “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby”: “If dreams are like movies / then memories are films about ghosts.” These three tracks are songs about the memories of ghosts, and they feel decidedly spectral. They’re generally lifeless, held together by vapor-thin ideas, and based on a past that people might soon remember less fondly.

When Recovering the Satellites followed up August and Everything After, a kind of split happened in the collective consciousness between the Crows’ “rock” songs and their “others.” (This split was embodied in the two-disk Across a Wire live album, even though some songs appeared on both). “1492,” like “Cowboy” before it, fits into the electric, “Live at the 10 Spot” category. It’s a guitar driven indulgence fest, lyrically and musically. (Wonky guitar solo? Check!) Duritz wanders blindly through Italian nightclubs, meeting “little” as well “skinny” girls, waiting until we all “disappear into the silence that surrounds us.” The song’s second half gets even stranger, as Duritz riffs on the classic children’s rhyme “In 1492 / Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” including “In 1494 / he did it with a girl next door.” Unsurprisingly, he makes an autobiographical turn, shouting dates from his own history in the latter part of the twentieth century. It’s an uninspiring conclusion: “I’m the king of everything / I’m the king of nothing.”

The other two songs here fit into the “others” category, which most generally could be called “ballads,” but they also include the piano anthems like “A Long December,” the hand-clappers like “Hangin’ Around,” and pretty much anything that has garnered the band widespread airplay. With the exception of some diehard fans (though not me), this is seen as the finer material, and the tradition that “You Can’t Count on Me” is designed to fit into. It doesn’t. It’s an innocuous song that might make it to the top of the charts if anyone remembers Vanessa Carlton and has forgotten about Taylor Swift.

“When I Dream of Michelangelo” is also a softer song, replacing the strummed acoustic that structures “Count” with a more James-Taylor-finger-picked approach, complemented with piano, banjo, sleigh bells, and bongos. Again, it’s worth stating the arrangements here, per Crows usual, are great. (It’s nice to hear, every now and again, musicians who are fucking pro at the dobro and xylophone and shit, you know? Nothing against the tweecore.) Of the tracks here, this one most closely reaches the strengths of Counting Crows’ late career work: restrained introspection, lyrics that feel sincere, and, fine, famous artists and people with butterfly wings that float above us when we sleep or whatever. As tired as the imagery might be, these are some of the many things that we have come, memories and all, to love about Counting Crows songs. Sometimes.