Skeptics who think the massive popularity of iTunes detracts from the sales of full album projects are no doubt encouraged by out-of-the-box success stories like that of Counting Crows, whose concept recording Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings (on Geffen Records) debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200 album chart with first week sales of over 100,000 units.
According to the band’s lead singer/songwriter Adam Duritz, 40% of these were from online digital sales. Nearly 15 years after they broke onto the rock scene with sales upwards of 10 million units worldwide for their debut August and Everything After, the Crows are also still very popular throughout Europe, where they will be at T in the Park 2008 in Scotland and open for the Police June 24 in Belgrade, Serbia. Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings reached the Top 15 in the UK, Top 5 in the Netherlands, and also charted in Ireland and Sweden. Beyond that, it’s also on the charts in Australia and Canada.
Though the Crows never quite matched the massive response they received with their first album, their current achievements after a six-year recording layoff aren’t surprising considering their energetic, passionate live performances over the years and strong showings for their subsequent studio albums Recovering The Satellites (1996), This Desert Life (1998) and Hard Candy (2002). Though Duritz insists that ‘we accidentally have good singles every now and then but it’s not what we do – we’re about full emotional bodies of work,’ the Crows have scored numerous hit singles throughout their career.
The group followed its breakthrough Top 10 hit ‘Mr. Jones’ in 1994 with ‘Rain King,’ ‘Round Here,’ ‘Angels of the Silences,’ ‘A Long December,’ ‘Hanginaround,’ ‘American Girls’ with Sheryl Crow, and a popular cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ with Vanessa Carlton. In 2004, the band’s ‘Accidentally in Love’ appeared on the soundtrack of the hugely popular film Shrek 2 and Duritz and co-composer, Crows keyboardist Charlie Gillingham, received Academy Award nominations for Best Original Song. Also ironic in light of the singer’s statement about ‘accidental singles’ is Duritz’s insistence that Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings – which came out in late March – be preceded by the January release of a free two-song digital single on their website, ‘1492’ (which became part of the Saturday Nights half of the album) and ‘When I Dream of Michelangelo’ (from the Sunday Mornings portion). The lead commercial single ‘You Can’t Count On Me’ hit radio in February.
“In my mind, we’re an album band because that’s what we do,’ says Duritz, invoking the rest of his ensemble that currently includes band co-founder David Bryson, Gillingham, Dan Vickery, David Immergluck and Jim Bogios. ‘We make good albums. Now with the whole world going byte-sized, we felt, and still feel, like it’s more important than ever not to cooperate with all of that. So if the album is disappearing as an art form, we wanted to make one last great album. We had a chance to make a point now and make a real album, an album that really means something to us, and this is as real an album as any we’ve made.’
Duritz is a fascinating interview subject, because he makes no bones about his ongoing battles with depression and the worsening state of a diagnosed dissociative disorder. For the singer, the latter makes the world seem not real, like a constant hallucination, and he literally feels like he’s stoned all the time. Despite his material success and his ability to find synergy with his fans while performing, he often distances himself from friends and family, has a hard time keeping girlfriends and finds it difficult to truly care about or connect with people on a personal level. Constant traveling and being away from those who offer personal support sometimes exacerbates the problem, and he was at first hesitant about accepting the band’s upcoming summer-fall tour with Maroon 5.
The entire song cycle of Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings began when he stumbled upon ‘1492,’ a song left over from the Hard Candy sessions that spoke to the way he felt years later in 2006. ‘It’s about degradation and disillusion, about letting myself fall apart,’ Duritz says. ‘In it, I saw a picture of me and where I’ve been heading and I wanted to make a whole record about it. It’s really not about catharsis, though, because writing a song doesn’t fix anything. But I am a songwriter and that means my life is about taking things that are inside me and getting them out. When I listen to the whole album, I realize that the healthier I sound on the songs, the sadder I get. I’ve come to accept that the disorder I have will not go away and the world will never seem completely real to me, but I have to move on with my life. Beyond the music, I’m choosing to go out there and connect, be around people and work at relationships with my family, my friends and their kids. I’m making room for other things in my life besides the constant obsession with my career.’
Saturday Nights, the album’s angry, edgy and electric first six tracks, was produced by Gil Norton (the Pixies, Foo Fighters), an intimate with the Crows since helming Recovering The Satellites. The more acoustic and folk-influenced Sunday Mornings was produced by Brian Deck whose past credits include Modest Mouse and Iron & Wine. For Duritz, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is ‘about when Saturday night happens and you lose all sense of yourself. You dissolve into drink and medications and moral lack of self, and finally into a loss of faith and then madness. And it’s about when you wake up Sunday morning and look back at the wreck you’ve made of your life and you think, ‘How can I possibly fix this? How can I ever climb out of this hole?’ And then you start to try and climb. But Sunday Mornings isn’t about getting back to the top; it’s about struggling to even learn how to climb. There’s been this misconception that that the first half is about partying and the second is the regret that follows. Not quite. It’s more about choosing to make a change. Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings isn’t an album about sin and redemption; it’s more the binge and the hangover.’
Duritz adds that when the Crows started to make the album, he came down hard on his bandmates, having long talks about their gifts and limitations because he seriously thought this might be their last recording ever. ‘1492’ and ‘Los Angeles’ both reflected this sense of decay and disintegration, and he didn’t conceive of the Sunday Mornings part until much later. Spending 20 days with Norton in New York City in June, 2006, the band emerged with music that felt real and raw. After touring that summer, they felt revitalized. In early 2007, they went back in the studio with Norton for another month, then went out to Berkeley, California – where Counting Crows began in 1991 – to work with Deck, and did the Sunday Mornings tracks in 25 days.
‘That might have been even harder than Saturday Nights because we had no idea even how to make that kind of music,’ says Duritz. ‘We sort of had to teach ourselves on the fly how to compose and play this whole’I don’t know’reinvention of our acoustic music, but it was worth it. Despite all the ups and downs, the thing I love about Counting Crows is the jazz of it all, the fact that we’ve spent all these years in a kind of interaction I once thought only existed in jazz. There’s just this great subtlety to the way we play together, listen to each other and react. The advice I give young artists is that if you have this kind of creative energy inside you and bring it out, that’s a perfect piece of art. What happens after you put it out is totally subjective. Odds are, your likelihood of selling millions of albums is small, but that’s not up to you. What is up to you is putting everything you can into your music and being proud of the work you do. The music we make will outlive us all and what matters is that we’ve left these documents of ourselves behind for everyone to enjoy.’
Jonathan Widran is a free-lance music/entertainment journalist who contributes regularly to Music Connection, Jazziz and All Music Guide. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is also on Google+