It's been seven long years since the music world has had an all-original Counting Crows record. Though they have released two records since 2008's Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, this is the first to contain all new, all Crows written tracks. The wait has been long. But the wait has been worth it. Somewhere Under Wonderland delivers the goods. The Crows are back.
I first heard three of the songs off Wonderland last October. In a crowded basement club in New York City, four members of the band, billed as Sonic Cow Grunt, preformed "Scarecrow," "God of Ocean Tides" and "Cover Up the Sun" for the first time. I felt extremely lucky to be able to hear these songs in their infancy, and couldn't wait for the record.
Though the whole album has been streaming on iTunes radio for the last week or so, I tried my best to not listen to it in it's entirety. I had the first four songs that had been released already ("Palisades Park", "Scarecrow", "God of Ocean Tides" and "Earthquake Driver") and heard a couple more at the show I went to on their summer tour. So, as soon as the record became available to download, I jumped on it. It couldn't download fast enough. I needed these songs. The songs I'd already heard were amazing, and I knew the rest of the songs would follow suit.
Somewhere Under Wonderland carries all the emotion a Counting Crows record should. All those angsty feelings from the 90's come rushing back. It's like running into an old friend you haven't seen in years, but getting along like you haven't missed a beat. Listening to the record the first time though is a little overwhelming. There's so much to soak in. The words, good gourd the words. I love words. I love the way random words can be so beautifully strung together. There are so many amazing words on this record. Adam Duritz has long been one of my favorite songwriters, and with the nine songs on Wonderland he just keeps drilling that fact into my brain.
Several of the songs have lyrical arcs that connect them, keeping a kind of theme on the record, not a blatantly obvious theme, but a theme nonetheless. We have spacemen and aliens, "I was an alien in utero / somehow missed New Mexico" (Dislocation,) "Mary steers clear of the men from space... Ivan the ancient spaceman race fan / Corners the market on American tastes / And says 'Spaceman! Scarecrow! Peepshow! Freakshow!" (Scarecrow,) "There are aliens on motorcycles / Riding on the radio while we destroy the world" (Elvis Went to Hollywood.) Then there's the climbing, escaping through windows, "He said 'come outside / climb out your bedroom window / shimmy down the fire escape / and say goodbye'" (Palisades Park,) "If you decide to climb out your bedroom window / pain a picture on a cloud" (John Appleseed's Lament.) I love how that works out. I have no idea if it was done on purpose, of if it just kinda happened. Either way, I totally dig it.
"'Palisades Park' is a story. It's an epic. It's a feel good call back to the likes of Mrs. Potter's Lullaby. It's the prefect summer song. It's flows flawlessly from the distant sounding trumpet solo to Adam Duritz's vocals; fresh, refreshed, and slightly jazzy. I think the lyrics to the song might be the origin to the "come outside, come out your window...." lyric inserts Duritz has been adding to live versions of Round Here over the last couple years. Or maybe I'm wrong, who knows. But seriously though, the lyrics are good. And then there's the hook right before the chorus. Good gourd, the hook. But my favorite line, well, lines, the few lines out of the whole 8 minute song, that speak to me the most, right now anyway are:
"Andy said, "Man, I need a break from the world outside"
And these days my life just careens through a pinball machine
I could do so much better but I can't get off the tilt"
The last couple years my life has felt just like that.
The song builds as it goes, grows, grabs your attention every step of the way...Palisades Park is an instant classic"
"Earthquake Driver" is a trip. On the outside a jaunty, melodic ride of guitars and carefully timed hand claps. When you listen to the words, you realize it goes deeper than that. I hear it as someone who wants to be involved, someone who doesn't want to be alone, someone who wants to be. Maybe that's why I'm drawn to the song. Or maybe it's just the carefully timed hand claps.
The song that held the title of favorite up until the whole record came out is "God of Ocean Tides." For as much as I love the guitar driven, rocking Crows songs, I love those classic Durtiz ballads even more. "God of Ocean Tides" has a bit of a "Washington Square" twang to it, but a bit dreamier. The simple acoustic guitars flow flawlessly throughout the song, the piano dancing along beside them. There are so many lines in this song that I love. I won't list them all, it'd take to much time. So I'll just leave you with this one:
"Colored lights and birthday cakes
Candle wax on paper plates
Breathe the water
You can see through the water
All the way up to the sky"
The record jumps from electric guitar laden to acoustic and then back again. "Johnny Appleseed's Lament" is one of the heavy guitar laden tracks. It is also one of the songs on the record that surprised me the most. It's one that up until the record came out I hadn't heard. One that I had no idea what to expect. "Johnny Appleseed's Lament" is a confessional song. It opens much like "Round Here" but moves in a different direction:
"I stepped out the front door into winter and the world outside
I stepped out the door to New York City
My hair was barely dry
I could not remember where I was going
So I went back inside"
The song is like a narrative, with the writer expressing insights into thoughts and dreams and love and life: “Come on Adam, tell me what the hell is wrong with you
Come on Adam, what the hell am I supposed to do?
I could love you, I could leave you, but I can’t live with what you put me through”
In some ways the song reminds me of the unreleased, holy grail of Crows songs, "August and Everything After." Autobiographical, honest, whole:
"I cigarette the winter air
and then I Fred Astaire my way down 7th Street
Some chick yells 'Jesus loves you more than I know, but less than I need'
I parade down the Bowery to the Battery
and then I step off into the air
Point my sunglasses east toward Jerusalem
And then follow all the Pharaohs there..."
But I think my favorite part of the whole song, the part that gives me all the feels:
"I call the wind Maria because I do not know her face
I call the endless sky Amelia
Because she stays with me from place to place
I call the sun my love Emmanuelle
Because she cradled me in her embrace"
The damn song just gets better and better every time I listen to it. And those guitars. Holy cow.
The song that blew me away the most, the song that when I first listened to it left me breathless (literally, I had to remind myself to breathe, it hit me that hard,) the song that still after listening to it like three dozen times still gives me butterflies is "Possibility Days"
Why? It's amazing, first off. The words are ridiculously brilliant. The song is heartbreakingly beautiful. Adam's vocals are perfect, with a hint of yearning, a vulnerability, that makes them infectious. The lyrics tell of love, of love that just doesn't work, of love no one wants to admit isn't working, of love that falls apart. The personal aspect the story makes the song all that much better.
"It was a cold 3am at JFK
I guess you stayed because you wanted to stay
We went from zero to everything all in a day
And then Kennedy took you away...
You know that the worst part of a good day
is hearing yourself say goodbye to one more possibility day
it goes on and on...
And the worst part of a good day is knowing it's slipping away...
We were waiting for winter this year
But you came and it never appeared
Me and you, we know too many reasons
For people and seasons that pass like they weren't even here"
And on and on with word that mean so much. Word that stop my heart waiting for the next line. Words that I haven't been able to get out of my head since I first heard the song. Word to a melody that waltzes through my body with every beat. Words that with every note make me fall even more for this band.
Every song on this record is brilliant. Every song is worth everything it offers. This record is a long awaited collection of the most brilliant songs the band has ever put together. The band is sounding tighter than ever, Duritz's writing is just as awesome as it's ever been, if not better and his vocals are sounding better than ever, refreshed, fresh, healthy. I listen to the record and am just so happy that I have this band in my life, that I can call Adam a friend.
I highly recommend getting your hands on this record, getting your ears on this record (If you haven't already)
If you want it, the track list:
1. "Palisades Park"
2. "Earthquake Driver"
4. "God of Ocean Tides"
6. "Elvis Went to Hollywood"
7. "Cover Up the Sun"
8. "John Appleseed's Lament"
9. "Possibility Days"