When the Counting Crows didn’t win the Oscar for Best Song in 2005 for “Accidentally in Love” from the movie “Shrek,” I was ambivalent. While I would have loved to see one of my favorite bands recognized for their talent, I didn’t want it to be for a song so purely “pop” that it betrayed the honesty and rawness of their best work. I felt a similar ambivalence toward “Hard Candy,” the Counting Crows’ last studio effort from 2002, which featured more than the expected one-or-two radio-friendly pop/rock tracks.
If in recent years it looked like the Counting Crows were at risk of alienating the cult of listeners who have come to expect the kind of piercing lyrics for which singer Adam Duritz is known, their new album suppresses any fears. “Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings” is a return to form for the band and features songs that are alternately loud and soft but always introspective and bittersweet.
The album is divided into two halves. The first six songs fall under the category of “Saturday Nights” and contain up-tempo beats and driving guitar riffs. The last eight songs, belonging to “Sunday Mornings,” have an acoustic, folk-inspired sound. When considered as a whole, the two halves form a distinctive album that is about partying with abandon in one moment and picking up the pieces of your life in the next.
Gil Norton, whose past credits include efforts by the Foo Fighters, produced the first half, while Brian Deck, who has worked with Iron & Wine, is responsible for the second half. Norton’s influence is apparent in the album’s unsparing opening track “1492,” a song about moral disintegration—something Duritz’s songs have always wrestled with. At times the blaring guitars fall just short of overwhelming Duritz’s wails.
True to form, Duritz writes lyrics that are self-reflective, almost to the point of narcissism. His fear of selling out—the theme on which he ruminates most often—is treated thoughtfully in the song “Los Angeles.” Duritz croons, “I am just trying to make some friends / So if you see that movie star and me / If you should see my picture in a magazine / ... I am just trying to make some sense out of me.”
The more interesting part of the album is the “Sunday Mornings” portion, when the instrumentation doesn’t compete with the lyrics for attention. Deck’s influence as producer is evident in the delicate piano melodies and wailing harmonicas that provide a needed contrast to the loudness of the first half. The softer sound better showcases the deeply personal nature of Duritz’s lyrics. “Washington Square” in particular is an affecting song about longing for the people and places you know—and that know you in return.
One of the weaknesses of the album, however, is just how familiar many of the songs sound. “Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings” features all the usual tropes of a Counting Crows album: the LA/New York divide; the bittersweet nature of love; isolation and depression. Duritz has also lifted numerous lines from older songs; “When I Dream of Michelangelo” is a veritable pastiche of old lyrics, and the name itself is a line from the song “Angels of the Silences.” But all is forgiven when out of a familiar verse comes the line, “I want a white bread life, just something ignorant.” It’s this sense of biting irony that is the hallmark of some of the Counting Crows’ best songs, like “Mr. Jones” and “Rain King.”
“You Can’t Count on Me” is the most overtly pop-infused song off the album and also its first single. Despite its infectious hook and simple, singsong chorus, it still features unexpected lyrics. It’s easy to mistake the words of the chorus for the cliché “you can count on me,” rather than its negation, which goes to show that even when the Counting Crows appease a mass audience with their music, Duritz still manages to add his signature touch of melancholic irony.
—Staff Writer Claire J. Saffitz can be reached at email@example.com.