like a ghost into the fog
where notices the contrast
of white on white.
This simple stanza opens “Round Here,” the lead track on the first studio album by Counting Crows. Music fans all have their defining moments. The words, the chords, that rhythms the spoke to them at critical times in their lives. Though I pride myself on my appreciation for music from different genres and eras, there has never been an album to speak to me so profoundly as August and Everything After.
Back to those opening lyrics, the step outside the front door is an introduction of this band to the world, the ghost into a fog a revelation of the brand of melancholy and memory that infuses their art, the contrast of white on white an illustration of the subtleties at hand in their work.
From that soft, slow, unaccompanied electric guitar lick to the raw emotion when the girl in the car in the parking lot says “man, you should try to take a shot” to the way in which the song collapses in on itself, parts falling away until it’s just the lead vocal and the guitar again, “Round Here” is, on every level, an introduction to this album and to what this band does.
There’s things I remember
and things I forget
I miss you
I guess that I should.
What would you change if you could?
Like so many of the things I love my from my formative years, I gained my first exposure to this album via my sister, when she brought home the audio cassette. My fledgling aesthetics just starting to take hold at the age of eleven, I remember hearing “Raining in Baltimore”--a song that’s melancholy rivals any sad song anywhere, not in terms of angst or melodrama, but rather in terms of sincerity and the sense of a human being who is completely defeated. I heard this song and thought it was among the most beautiful I’d ever heard.
Every time she sneezes
I believe it’s love
After my sister moved off to college, I could justify buying my own copies of the music I’d learned to love through her, and I picked up my own copy of August and Everything After in the ninth grade. As much as I liked what I had heard of the album up to that point, I hadn’t remained a faithful fan in the interceding years. It was only when I had the CD that I started listening to it on repeat in the oversized boom box in my bedroom, on my Discman on the bus rides to school. In that process, I discovered truer favorites.
I played viola in the high school orchestra and had a crush on a girl in the violin section. (If I’m going to be completely honest, I had crushes on multiple girls from the violin section over the course of those four years, but that’s beside the point for now.) I remember watching this beautiful girl while the director lectured us about our tuning. She sneezed three times in rapid succession. In the absence of a tissue, she blew her nose in her cardigan. Maybe I was creep for watching her the way I did, but something in that moment (that I can't imagine she knew she and I had shared) spoke to me. That she was a real person, with real boogers just the same as me. That she could laugh at herself, the way she did a moment later, tucking the cardigan beneath her folding chair, exchanging side comments with the girl who shared her music stand.
I smiled and thought of the lyrics from “Anna Begins,” that final minute and a half of music where the melody shifts and everything about the narrative of the song reaches its epic peak, desperately in love, certain it’s over. Lyrics about moments lost in bed sheets and the space between sleep and waking where lovers get to know one another like no one else does. She’s talking in her sleep, it’s keeping me awake … and every word is nonsense but I understand. I listened to those words in awe as a fifteen-year-old virgin, a budding romantic. And what might be best of all about them is the way in which they’ve only rung truer over the passage of time and experience.
Does he tell you when you’re sorry?
Does he tell you when you’re wrong?
“A Murder of One” is the closing track of August and Everything After. Don’t listen carefully enough, and it’s the phoenix to lift listeners’ spirits after “Raining in Baltimore.” Pay attention to the details, and it’s a far more complex, epic song. About hopes and disillusionment. About coming to terms. About the hope of liberation. Indeed, when I listened to the lyrics reproduced above and the latent anger in Adam Duritz’s voice when he sang them, I thought of my relationship with my father. All the times he corrected me. How, as I grew older, I learned not to fight, but also not to listen.
The title of this song, itself, is oft misunderstood as the song has nothing to do with homicide, but rather refers to murder as the term for a group of crows--integral to the band’s name, tied into the dreamscape at the climax of the song in which I dreamt I saw you walking up a hillside in the snow, casting shadows on the winter sky, as you stood there counting crows.
She’s perfect for you
Man, there’s got to be somebody for me
Then there’s “Mr. Jones.” The very first single from Counting Crows, and arguably still their best-known song. It feels too simple to label a song like that my favorite and yet for every album track and bootleg I’ve heard in nearly two decades of fanhood, I still don’t feel any song from my favorite band has exceeded this one. Ostensibly a song about big dreams and trying to pick up girls, complicated with the open recognition that the song’s narrator doesn’t know why he wants to be a big star. And there’s the key lyric highlighted above. Like a number of songs from the band’s catalog, the late stages of this one include an inversion of the lyrics. Contrary to the braggadocio voice of early verses that says she’s looking at you--oh, no, no, she’s looking at me this voice that has wizened via introspection and the minor key of the bridge cedes the woman to his friend, burgeons with new hope that there’s someone for him, and clings to his hopes of rock and roll stardom even when he’s all alone for the final lyrics.
It seems borderline sacrilegious not to pay homage to songs like “Omaha,” “Sullivan Street,” and “Rain King,” but I fear I’ve already prattled on long enough. All of that said August and Everything After is an album that runs the emotional gauntlet with sensitivity, fire, and nuance. To my ear, it’s a collection of music without peer.