If you’re anything like me (and, if you’re currently reading a retrospective review of a quarter-century-old Counting Crows record, those chances are pretty good), you’re the kind of person who spends a non-zero amount of time combing through the “Related” section of your favorite bands’ Allmusic entries. Resist that urge when it comes to Counting Crows; if you don’t, you’ll be instantly reminded of the inoffensive contemporaries (Hootie! Blues Traveler! The Wallflowers!) and dreadful followers (Sister Hazel! Train! Matchbox Twenty!) that helped turn the band into what critic Steven Hyden, in his own 20th anniversary defense of the record for Grantland in 2013, called “a group you can casually mock without having to justify it.”
Fight that urge, and fight that murderer’s row of lite-rock horseshit that only serves to distract you from a pair of facts that you know, deep in our shared musical memory, to be true: August and Everything After was actually a deeply satisfying album, and Adam Duritz was (at least over the course of 11 tracks in 1993) a songwriter capable of real, revelatory emotional depth.
On its 25th birthday, August and Everything After deserves a fresh listen, but, in a case filed under “nice problems to have,” it’s almost impossible to approach the album with equally fresh ears. That’s mostly down to the ubiquity of its two biggest hits: as ideal signifiers for the band’s distinctly ’90s brand of gently melancholy alt-rock, “Round Here” and “Mr. Jones” have become staples of that decade’s territory on the classic rock dial. That distinction is well-earned; if you could only listen to two songs from this album, these would still be the ones to choose. Written about actual nights on the town between Duritz and bassist Marty Jones of his pre-Crows band The Himalayans, the latter’s sing-along-ready chorus and weapons-grade hooks helped transform Duritz from a 29-year-old journeyman musician who really liked Van Morrison and Bob Dylan into the kind of guy who appears on the cover of Rolling Stone.
However, it’s the former that acts as both the record’s thesis and its heart. You’ll find all of the required elements of a prototypical Counting Crows song here: an understated arrangement, bittersweet and affecting lyrics, and a singular vocal performance from Duritz that harnesses only the best parts of his debt to Van Morrison. While Duritz’s voice remains polarizing 25 years on (and, to be fair, does nearly single-handedly hobble later tracks “Time and Time Again” and “Rain King” with an incurable case of mush mouth and a cringeworthy ending yelp, respectively), it manages complete service to the material on the record’s opening track and helps pack more welcome melodrama into five minutes than most albums muster in their entire runtime.
Duritz’s voice aside, the album’s flair for the cinematic is helped along in equal part by the production work of T-Bone Burnett, who, years before he became the secret weapon behind soundtracks from The Big Lebowski to O Brother, Where Art Thou? to A Mighty Wind, shepherded the band towards actual cohesion. Burnett encouraged Duritz’s move away from the hazy synthesizers and effects pedals that left the band sounding like “late-model Roxy Music” and towards the more timeless-sounding arrangements that eventually prevailed, and while his instincts on August and Everything After don’t always pay off (Steve Bowman’s drums often hit with all the power of someone banging on upholstery fabric, and the repeated-yet-directionless appearances of accordion, organ, and R.E.M.-aping mandolin only vindicate anyone eager to bag on the record for its neo-Celtic dorkiness or unearned ’60s nostalgia), his edgeless production also never gets in the way of the stories Duritz sets out to tell.
In the scenes Counting Crows conjure, the season is a perpetual state of almost-winter, the weather overcast, the time of day always slightly later than it responsibly should be. Within these melancholy snow globes, Duritz grapples with woes both private and interpersonal, lit here and there by a bedroom lamp, a neon beer sign, the dome light of a car speeding all by itself down a long, dark road. This is where the singer’s limits as a poet transform into his strengths as a songwriter; whether he’s working up the courage to end a breaking relationship in “Sullivan Street”, wishing for an end to post-breakup ennui in “Raining in Baltimore”, or fighting off the worst urges of mental illness in “Perfect Blue Buildings”, Duritz uses the record’s most unadorned moments as a showcase for the honest, hard-earned confessionalism both amplified and afforded by his relatively late start as a rock star. If you scuffed up the fidelity and taught your ears to squint, you might even hear Elliott Smith or a young Conor Oberst in the latter song’s earnest despair.
At their best, the songs on August and Everything After are what Hyden calls “realistically sad.” They’re also, for a great many people of a certain age, intimately relatable. We’ve all been there. We’ve all indulged dreams of seemingly unattainable fame (“Mr. Jones”), we’ve all been floored by the complications of a promising romance (“Anna Begins”), and we’ve all wondered if we, pushing 30 with seemingly nothing to show for it, might ever find love, satisfaction, or even just a moment that feels undeniably right. In that sense, Duritz is one in a long line of spokesmen for America’s alienated, unsatisfied ex-gifted kids, a position that’s only likely to become more important, not less.
That vulnerability hasn’t gone unnoticed in recent years. In his recent retrospective of August and Everything After for Entertainment Weekly (whose critic David Browne famously pegged the record with a D rating upon its release), critic Jim Farber praised Duritz for producing “a fully credible portrait of a young man struggling to accept himself, to find some way to be comfortable in his own skin.”
It was a trick that could only really be performed once. One of the biggest criticisms lobbed at August and Everything After by contemporaneous writers like Browne was that the record never rises above the sum of its sometimes-far-too-obvious influences. In many way, that’s fair. The music here doesn’t have the incisive lyrics of Dylan, the sonic bite of R.E.M., or the emotive heft of Van Morrison. What it does have, however, is honesty, which just so happens to be weighted a little heavier 25 years down the line. Whether he knew it or not, Adam Duritz brought us into the final exhausted moments of his own obscurity, moments that can’t, by their very nature, ever be replicated or returned to again. Good thing he made a record to prove it.
Essential Tracks: “Round Here”, “Mr. Jones”, “Anna Begins”, and “Sullivan Street”