Thursday, October 3, 2013

August and Everything After

Grantland brought to my attention the fact that August and Everything After, Counting Crows' debut album, was released 20 years ago this month (September). The article is fun, though the author is wrong when he states that their second album was their best (all albums after their first are so inferior that it baffles my mind how they're even related to the first). That's beside the point though, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a word or two about the album given that it is celebrating a major birthday and its significance in my own life.

I can't recall exactly how I became aware of the album. Surely I had heard Mr. Jones on the radio, but, as I'll explain later, that wouldn't have been reason for me to go out and make the purchase. I'm also pretty certain I didn't buy it in 1993, maybe 94 or 95. My only real guess is my best friend Jason, who lived half a country away, probably recommended it, a recommendation he probably regrets to some degree (again, more on that later). But I like its entry into my life being a mystery.

Leaving high school I probably owned five full length CDs of any importance to me:
  1. August and Everything After
  2. Pretty Hate Machine
  3. Little Earthquakes
  4. Portrait of an American Family
  5. Rage Against the Machine
Those who knew me in high school, and later college, even my closer friends (other than Jason and my future wife Robyn) probably wouldn't even have suspected I had August and Everything After in my meager collection. Outwardly I lived and breathed NIN and Marilyn Manson. Had I had to guess which of those albums would be my favorite ten or twenty years later I would have guessed wrong.

But life wasn't like a Nine Inch Nails album, it wasn't like a Marilyn Manson album. What life was like was August and Everything After. What life and the album convinced me of, on a variety of levels, was that I was destined for heartache. And much of the album is a mental map of my failed early attempts at courtship with Robyn.

The amazing thing about this album, for me, is that at different points in time almost every single one of the songs on it was my favorite. As a whole, it remains my favorite album.

1. Round Here - Although this was never my favorite song it has the distinction of always being my second favorite song on the album. Other songs would rise to the top and then sink back below the white-on-white fog of this song. Thematically the song always felt a little off compared to the other songs that I loved the most on the album. It feels more like a portrait of a girl, while the songs I loved the most were portraits of a boy who loves a girl.

I once heard a joke in Sunday school. What's the most read verse of the Book of Mormon? First Nephi, Chapter 1, verse 1. The joke being (I have to explain this) that most people, even the devote, start the book but never finish it, and First Nephi chapter 1, verse 1 is the start of the book. Similarly, I listened to this CD back before music was online, or even on your computer (other than with the intent of putting it on another CD), so I always listened to it straight through, and so this song is likely the single most listened to song in the existence of Shawn. Can I be certain? From my last year of high school through to the end of college I literally fell asleep listening to this album six or seven times a week. Here is why Jason probably regrets having introduced the CD to me; he had the great misfortune of being my roommate for all four years of college. It might also be his single most listened to song.

2. Omaha - Another thematically confusing song to me. It unfortunately isn't as pretty lyrically or musically as the first song and so it never made its way deep into my heart. I remember once stumbling on the fact that one of my friends (hi Betsy) loved, loved, loved this album and she considered this her favorite song on the album. It blew my mind, it still blows my mind.

3. Mr. Jones - It took almost 20 years for me to appreciate Mr. Jones at all, I always considered it the low point of the album. In a record of broken heart love songs this one felt the furthest from the mark. In addition the up-beat tempo felt like a song destined for an album of happier times. I didn't hate the song because the radio played the crap out of it, remember I listened the album nightly so I'm suited to hearing the same music a lot. On an album of muted grays and blacks, this song shined. I wanted to cover my eyes and ears when it came on, for the shock of it.

I recall the moment pretty vividly still. Driving along a back road in Northern California, headed to a Vegan BBQ retreat at the Farm Sanctuary, enjoying the green grasses blowing in the wind, the warm sun on my skin, and the twisting roads, this song came on the radio and I really really really listened to it. And there was this little thing that clicked in my head. I'm not sure how true it is or if it was the intent, but I see this song now as a meta song about the album itself. Which still places it at odds with most of the other songs but it helps ease the pressure of its existence at this precise moment in time. The other songs are songs about love. A boy in love. Losing that love. And what that feels like. But what this song is about is about that same boy meeting someone else, someone older whose already been there and done that, and to some degree still is groping around trying to fill that missing love. Mr. Jones is precisely the kind of guy who would love this album.

4. Perfect Blue Buildings -  Now we're getting somewhere! Look, as the Grantland article pointed out the lyrics on this album aren't mysterious and deep like a Nirvana song can be, but it's also not as opaque and lifeless as a lot of love songs (they are kicking the crap out of most country songs). The lyrics here use symbolism to set the mood, is there anything more somber than a perfect blue building? I'm not convinced there is. This was probably my first favorite song on the album. I love some of the simpler lyrics, "I have bones beneath my skin," "where I have friends who care for me," "help me stay awake, I'm falling."

5. Anna Begins - This is one that was a favorite early on and stays near the top. It never fails to impress me. Never fails to yank at my heart. Never fails to make me think of failed romance. The lyrics from beginning to end slay me. If I tried to quote some of my favorite lyrics it would likely include the entirety of this song. I'll try to pull out my favorite three, "It seems like I should say, as long as this is love, but it's not all that easy." "Every time she sneezes I believe it's love." Poor Robyn. "I'm not ready for this sort of thing." The last proves nothing on lyrical quality but how great Adam's voice is at delivering even these simple lines with emotion. OK, one more: "Maybe I should, snap her up in a butterfly net, pin her down on a photograph album."

6. Time and Time Again - "I wanted so badly, someone other than me, staring back at me. I wanted to see you walking backwards, get the sensation of you coming home. I wanted to see you, walking away from me, without the sensation of your leaving me alone." I think I spent two years of college feeling this way about Robyn. Just want want want want wanting, without a clue on how to make it happen. I felt like I got close time and time again. And each time it drew near again I wondered if this time it would last or if I should be guarded (smart?) and not get my hopes too high. I always got my hopes too high. Why fly if you're going to stay near the ground?

7. Rain King - This song has the same up-beatness to it that Mr. Jones has but I never had a problem with it. And though it isn't in my top three or four songs it always felt the most "Counting Crows" to me. Like it some how exemplified them as a band. It's so perfect now when I see crows in the rain I think of them as "rain kings." The song has made me love the metaphor of lover as queen.

8. Sullivan Street - There may not be 10 seconds of guitar that stirs my soul more than the beginning of this song. Sullivan Street currently reigns as my favorite song on the album, and has been in this most honored place for perhaps the longest of all. It's spot, I suspect, is secure for all time and eternity. This is the perfect broken down love song. Not a violent I hate you sort of break up, but something softer and yet just as devastating. When Robyn spurned me all those years ago, I walked with my head down, lost, along my own Sullivan Street. The mood of the song and the lyrics capture perfectly what I felt when I felt the saddest I've ever felt. However terrible, it's an amazing gift to be able to dial up that sort of emotion pretty much at will. "Past the shadows that fall down wherever we meet." "Pretty soon now, I won't come around." "If she remembers, she hides it whenever we meet." DEATH! "Either way now, I don't really care." LIES! "Cause I'm gone from there."

The song basically ends with this lyric "It's almost everything I need." I love the line. When they released a live album I was sort "eh" about it but Adam does this thing with this line, where he sings it and then alters what comes next to "no no no no no, It's EVERYTHING." I don't know if I can explain how much that alteration means to me.

9. Ghost Train - This song actually never made it to the top of my favorite list. It never inspired the same level of distaste I had for Mr. Jones or even Omaha, but I've never been particularly attached to it, except in as much as it's part of the album and seems perfectly natural here now.

10. Raining in Baltimore - The desire for a phone call and a rain coat have never been sadder. You want to mope in your loving sadness? Wait for a rainy day, put some headphones in, and take walk and get soaked while listening to this song. Totally worth it. "I miss you, I guess that I should." I think this song is the best example of the passion in Adam's voice. I can't imagine anyone else singing it with the same impact.

11. A Murder of One - After my initial infatuation with some of the other songs this one crept into my subconscious and became my favorite for an extended period of time, but was eventually overcome by Sullivan Street. I don't think I even realized I liked the song, or that I knew it well. It being at the end of the album, I rarely heard it when I was falling asleep. But it perched in my sleeping ear like a crow on a fence, singing its song.

When Robyn dated other people I thought of this song often. It reinforced this notion in my mind that none of them could be as good to her as I would be. In all my arrogance, I worried "all [her] life would be such a shame shame shame," if she didn't pick me.

For the longest time I thought this song contained my favorite lyric, "There's a perfectness in side you, sleeping underneath your skin, when you open up your wings to speak I wish you'd let me in." I probably believed this to be the lyrics for a good five years. One day I read the actual lyrics and was destroyed when I saw it's "There's a bird that nests in side you." ACK! Anyway, that was a sad day. It may or may not have corresponded with the switch from this to Sullivan Street being my favorite song.

Other funny thing, I never understood the title. I don't know that I really get it even now, but it occurred to me just this year that the "Murder" in the title is not a murder as in death, but is the word for a group of crows. It's a group of one crows. A lonely crow. I'm dumb, but I love that 20 years later I'm still unearthing little nuggets in the album.