Counting Crows’ August Wisdom

Aarik Danielsen

I wanted to be Adam Duritz. All my friends wanted to be someone just a little funkier.

When Bay Area rockers Counting Crows hit it big 25 years ago with the release of August and Everything After (on Sept. 14, 1993, to be exact), their frontman offered the young decade something previously unheard. He possessed none of Kurt Cobain’s penchant for wry disruption, Eddie Vedder’s painfully reluctant soul, or Bono’s love-drunk swagger. Instead, Duritz was earnest in an era that prized irony and cool detachment. Every failure he endured or romantic inclination he pondered was stitched into the sleeves of songs balancing the loose-limbed Americana of The Band, the poetic weirdness of R.E.M., and the high-kicking soul of Van Morrison. August and Everything After served the young and sensitive, helping us recognize chords of brokenness and healing, regret and redemption. In doing so, it even occasionally echoed the Bible’s wisdom literature.

It’s tempting to assign the majority of the Bible’s emotional content to the New Testament, which immerses us in the life of Jesus and bears witness to Paul’s passionate discourse. Old Testament laws and ledgers feel cold by comparison; its tales of war and wrath overwhelm. But for a child of the 1990s more well-versed in rock radio and MTV Buzz Bin clips than Scripture, Duritz and company tuned my ears to emotional frequencies I eventually picked up in the Old Testament, especially that wisdom literature.

A man after David’s heart, Duritz proves no stranger to the rhythms of lament and praise, tension and release that can be found throughout Psalms. While little relief comes in its central relationship, the tension in “Anna Begins” builds through consecutive verses, then finally resolves in the chorus’ major-chord feel, mimicking the pattern of many Psalms. Like the Psalmist, Duritz acknowledges the seeming disparity between the unrighteous and worthy; rebels keep filling their pockets and bellies while the faithful muddle along. In “Rain King,” he warns, “Don’t try to feed me”—physically or with empty words of assurance—“cause I’ve been here before and I deserve a little more.” The joyful scream at song’s end suggests Duritz sees something better on the horizon, something like“the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

Few traditional proverbs exist on August and Everything After, at least few with the moral clarity of Proverbs. But Duritz’s assertion that “it’s the heart that matters more” on “Omaha” resonates long and loud. On the closer, “A Murder of One,” he borrows structure from Proverbs 6, invoking the band’s name and assigning meaning to each crow:

One for sorrow, two for joy

Three for girls, and four for boys

Five for silver, six for gold

Seven for a secret never to be told.

Like a Gen X Springsteen, Duritz poured himself out to and through characters. The record spends much of its energy on volatile romantic chemistry. Lovers tangle together in webs of desire and ambivalence, shame and dependence. Duritz’s lyrics suggest the intensity found in Song of Songs, but sound only faint echoes of the true intimacy and trust within that book. His world crumbles beneath Maria’s burdens in “Round Here.” On “Anna Begins,” he pulls his weight in a tug-of-war with Anna, who admits “if it’s love ... then we’re going to have to think about the consequences.” His feet slip beneath the waves and breakers of an unnamed muse in “Sullivan Street.” Each of these relationships is plagued by ruinous foxes, taking the shape of emotional baggage and sorrow. Chances at love are interrupted by memories of old flames, hopes of connection mediated by the desire for self-preservation.

Duritz proves no stranger to the rhythms of lament and praise, tension and release that can be found throughout Psalms.

The cast of August and Everything After often sounds caught between the rocky soil of Ecclesiastes and the hard place of suffering Job. The narrator of “Perfect Blue Buildings” faces a devastating choice: slip back into the mire of drug abuse or confront the very pain he medicates away. In his own way, he co-signs the existential shrug of Ecclesiastes’ Preacher:

It’s 4:30 a.m. on a Tuesday

It doesn’t get much worse than this

In beds in little rooms

in buildings in the middle

Of these lives which are completely meaningless

Seeing a way out, but ramming his head against a tenuous existence, the would-be rock star of “Mr. Jones” pleads, “Believe in me / cause I don’t believe in anything / And I want to be someone to believe.”

Although “she’s close to understanding Jesus,” Maria’s woes leave her declaring “she’s tired of life / she must be tired of something.” One imagines her nodding along as Job bemoans his birth. But “Round Here,” God brokers no peace—there’s not even a gathering of worthless counselors.

Diving into the “everything after” this record, Counting Crows further unspool these threads, with the benefit of reflection and experience. As captured on 1998’s double record, Across A Wire: Live in New York City, the band fearlessly goes back into its own material, creating new lyrics and alternate melodies, interspersing stanzas from cover songs into their original work. On a recent episode of the Celebration Rock podcast, Duritz admitted he sometimes forgets original arrangements, hears them again, and is reminded of their strengths.

The discourse on fame the band initiated with “Mr. Jones” continues through numerous iterations of that song. Often it takes a Solomonic turn, as Duritz wrestles with the relative merits of—and fraying bonds between—wealth, fame, wisdom, and fulfillment. “When everybody loves you / Sometimes that’s just about as f***ed up as you can be,” he sings on Across a Wire.

August and Everything After ages well, in part, because the material is emotionally rich enough to withstand varying degrees of scrutiny. Unwilling to simply sing the hits, Duritz reimagines and reexamines them in light of who he is, who he was, and where he’s traveled.

His singing voice, with its quiver and ache, qualifies as an acquired taste for some. To those of us who admire him, it sounds like creation’s groan for something more, the cracks in his voice representing the cracks between the world we live in. You hear the gaps—and Duritz’s hope of filling them—when he sings “I want to be a lion” on “Mr. Jones,” and in that glorious “Rain King” howl.

Drop the needle on August and Everything After 25 years later and you’ll hear a record that holds up without playing to the fickle needs of nostalgia. It lives in a space where what is honest begs for what is true. Deep calls to deep in Duritz’s voice and verses, just as the longing and lament of the Old Testament cries out for the salvation around the corner. We all want something beautiful, he sings on “Mr. Jones.” The promise of the Bible’s wisdom literature is that God’s beauty will one day fully shine through.

Topics: Music