It’s the natural way of things, that some works of art are remembered, some revived, some forgotten. Nirvana has had a revival among Gen Zs, or at least Nirvana T-shirts. Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, far less so. So far, it seems to me, August and Everything After, the 1993 debut album by the San Francisco group Counting Crows, has been somewhat forgotten. I haven’t had my ears pricked up by tracks from August featuring on Yellowjackets or some other nineties nostalgia TV series, for example. I was surprised to find that “A Long December,” off their sophomore album, has received some attention as an honorary pandemic song. A bit of digging found some great podcast episodes about the album. But more needs to be said.
So let me say it: August is as perfect a debut album as there ever has ever been. It has that enchanting but slightly scary power that the collision of assured, emergent genius and kismet always does. It belongs alongside the self-titled debuts of The Doors, the Violent Femmes, and Rage Against the Machine; alongside Horses by Patti Smith, Funeral by Arcade Fire and Night Time My Time by Sky Ferreira.
Counting Crows, whose name was taken from the English nursery rhyme “One for Sorrow” (recited on August’s final track), were absolutely not a one-album wonder. They have released six more studio albums, of which five were with Geffen records, and several live albums. Now, there are special moments on many of these albums — their second album, Recovering the Satellites is terrific once you get the hang of it, and 2021’s Butter Miracle Suite One EP doesn’t put a foot wrong. But none of them is quite so transcendentally perfect as August is.
Counting Crows do not have the mythology of coming up in an important local scene. It’s not like they were playing Berkeley’s infamous 924 Gillman Street along with Green Day and The Offspring. They weren’t a determined working band, slowly building a fan base and a reputation through years and years of college radio play and endless touring. Rather, after founding members playing in other bands in the late eighties and early nineties, and a short time as an acoustic duo, Counting Crows launched into stardom in only a few years. Their ode to dreams of stardom, “Mr. Jones,” became a prophecy: the super-hit single that launched their career. Despite the lack of rich genealogy or romantic mythology of origin, the album that they came up with was deserving of the record company steel-cage death match prompted by their demo tape. It was entirely worthy of overnight mass popularity. Because, you see, they captured lightning in a bottle. In four months in a Los Angeles studio, they made a whole world in a single album. And part of what is important to understand about August and Everything After is how much it belonged in 1993.
The Grungy Heart of August and Everything After
Counting Crows are usually described as ‘roots rock’. They are framed as part of a nostalgic counter-current to the Seattle Sound of the early 1990s. But that narrative gets the timeline wrong and misses why I and so many other grunger kids loved August and Everything After. To understand the meaning of Counting Crows’ debut in its original context you have to see it as well and truly ‘grunge adjacent’.
Without a doubt Counting Crows paid homage to sixties and seventies folk rock: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison. But there was something about the musical language of August that gelled with the alternative music of the early nineties. Songs from this album belonged on the same cassette mixtape as R.E.M.’s alt-folk masterpiece Automatic for the People; The Cruel Sea’s The Honeymoon Is Over; and the magnificent soundtrack for the Gen X film Singles, peppered as it was with alt-folk-rock from Pearl Jam, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg. August kind of anticipated the trickle of grunge-folk to emerge after its release, like Alice in Chains’ Jar of Flies, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, or the acoustic numbers on Pearl Jam’s Vs.
We had August in our CD and cassette collections, we played “Round Here” in our busking repertoire. We didn’t have Dave Matthews Band or Hootie and the Blowfish. You know what? Dave Matthews and Hootie couldn’t even have been in our 1993 music collections anyway: they didn’t get really big until a year after August and Everything After. So I take exception to this roots rock label that gets smacked onto Counting Crows, especially for those first couple of albums. The narrative that they were a conservative counterbalance to alternative rock is a misleading retelling of history, perpetuated through decades of album reviews and profile pieces.
Lyrically, Counting Crows spoke the same bleak, early-nineties language. As the title suggests, and its September release date reinforced, August is an autumn album. It is about loss, ruin and rootlessness. We hear of the crumbling of people, places, relationships, and religion. It describes the packing up of circuses in the rain, lonely late-night train rides home. Consider the opening track, “Round Here”:
Then she looks up at the building
And says she’s thinking of jumping.
She says she’s tired of life
She must be tired of something.
Or “Perfect Blue Buildings“: “Beneath the dust and love and sweat that hangs on everybody. There’s a dead man trying to get out.” Overall it is a very melancholic piece of work. Perfect for a late-night wallow.
We shouldn’t be surprised to hear that a Counting Crows album sits comfortably alongside a Mudhoney EP. Grunge itself was a glorious Frankenstein of not only punk rock and hair metal, but also college radio folk rock. The Crows were in the outer, radio-friendly orbit of grunge.
Only Slightly More Cheerful Than Seattle
Counting Crows had their own thing going on, too, for better or for worse. That can be seen in how we first saw Adam Duritz in the “Mr. Jones” music video: that one-of-a-kind undercut and short dreadlocked hairdo; that tasseled cowboy jacket, tight t-shirt and jeans stuffed into — what are they? Ugg boots? Cowboy boots?
Counting Crows spaced out bright glimmers of optimism across the album — just one example of the album’s impeccable sequencing. On track three, “Mr. Jones,” with its jangly guitar and its sha-la-las, Duritz wistfully fantasizes, “When everybody loves me, I’m wanna be just about as happy as I can be.” Likewise, the mandolin-feathered seventh track, in its mythic anthemic chorus, has the singer claiming the crown of “Rain King“. The closing track, “A Murder of One” shimmers like a late-career U2 song, with a fitting difference in tone to everything before it, as if to signal the dawn after a rough, cold night, where it is “Raining in Baltimore.”
But even here, August wasn’t entirely out of step with the musical world around it. On the one hand, it is hardly fair to caricature grunge bands as entirely lacking in optimism or joy — the joyful “yeah” at the end of “Rain King” has a twin in Kurt Cobain’s “yeah, yeah, yeah” at the close of “All Apologies” (the closing track of In Utero, released a weak after August). On the other hand, even these apparently upbeat Counting Crows songs are shot through with at least self-deprecating irony, if not something much darker. Listen closer to the chorus of “A Murder of One.” For most of the song, Duritz is not singing “change, change, change” at all. Rather, “All your life is such a shame, shame, shame.”
True, “Mr. Jones” dares to be more forthright about desiring fame than grunge bands tended to be. The alternative music scene of the 1990s was imprisoned by such an earnest desire to preserve authenticity and such an intense anxiety around ‘selling out’ that it is almost comical in retrospect. Who were they kidding? Of course, all those great alternative bands wanted to be famous, even if they didn’t know what they were wishing for, were deeply troubled by that fame, and wrapped themselves in irony and misery to cope with it. In contrast, Duritz’s unashamed admission “I wanna be Bob Dylan” (echoed earlier in 1993 by Thom Yorke’s “I wannabe Jim Morrison” on Radiohead’s debut) comes across as refreshingly honest, sincere and … you know what? Authentic.
There are other themes, as well, that, while not entirely absent from grunge, are closer to the surface for Counting Crows: reflections on the artistic process, meditations on romance, and expressions of religious experience. The same anxious earnestness that made many alternative bands shy away from talking about ambition also made “all other instruments of faith and sex and God” (as “Rain King” puts it) uncomfortable subjects. Religion might have gotten an occasional polemical sideswipe but little more. Sex and romance might be touched on, but usually with overtones of violence or disgust. Back in 1993, it was nice to get something a little different from Counting Crows.
The Sixth Crow and the Sound of August
The title of honorary seventh Crow must go to David Immerglück, who played multiple instruments as a session musician on this August and Everything After and added so much to its texture. He also played on their second album, by which time the band itself had become a six-piece, before finally joining the band in 1999, as the official seventh Crow.
But producer T. Bone Burnett was also crucial to the sound of August. Burnett was a legendary producer and folk-rock singer-songwriter in his own right. Listen to Bruce Cockburn’s Nothing But A Burning Light (1991) or Burnett’s own 1992 album The Criminal Under My Own Hat to appreciate the musical atmosphere he had previously evoked in the studio. Burnett steered Counting Crows towards embracing a folk-rock sound and I have no doubt helped them keep that sound sparse, atmospheric, and just a little gritty. If George Martin was the fifth Beatle, then Burnett was surely the sixth Crow. Gill Norton was likewise important, I suspect, in helping them hone the heavier sound of Recovering the Satellites. After that, Counting Crows increasingly drifted into a glossy, session-musician-and-backing-singer sheen, sounding more like Sheryl Crowe than R.E.M. The songwriting and lyrics are often still very strong, but the sound is really lacking. Their pop-country-roots-rock demons soon took over, to the point where their robo-cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” depressingly, became a huge hit. It was righteously panned by The Village Voice as the worst song of the 2000s:
“[Y]ou know the line about how they “paved paradise and put up a parking lot?” Like how they replaced something beautiful with something cold and heartless and commercial? That’s you. You’re the parking lot, motherfucker. You drove your shitty steamroller over something everyone loved … They paved Nirvana and put up a Counting Crow. Argh!”
Producers can be vital for a band’s recording output.1 Full credit must go to T. Bone Burnett for the role he played in helping craft the sound of August.
The Everything After Universe
The album is a whole. A thought. A world. It spans the country — as Adam Duritz’s childhood did. The lyrics drop pins on the map, with their mentions of Nashville; or San Francisco locations such as the New Amsterdam and the corner of Virginia Street and La Loma Avenue. Whole songs are devoted to Omaha and Baltimore. It is one of the great road trip, backpacker, drifter albums.
The album also introduces us to a string of characters, several of them named — Maria (“Round Here”), Mr. Jones, Anna (“Anna Begins“) — just as many anonymous, but no less vivid, like the “old man treading around in the gathered rain … threading his toes through a bucket of rain” (“Omaha“). It fits comfortably into a particular lineage of storytelling songwriting, interested with those who fall between the cracks of American life. With its interest in the carnivalesque, there are some similarities to the prolific and eccentric work of Tom Waits. Adam Duritz’s stories are usually more cryptic than those of Bruce Springsteen but less than Bob Dylan’s.
August and Everything After is sown through with repeated motifs: rain, oceans, walking on water, late nights and sleeplessness, the color grey, and circus imagery. Counting Crows take their time, let their songs cook, give us room to walk around this world they have made. Only “Omaha” is under four minutes long. The opening track, “Round Here,” one of the longest on the album, begins with twelve seconds of near-silence before that lovely guitar riff begins to chime. The final song, “A Murder of One,” ends the album as it begins, with more than ten seconds of fading organ.
“Round Here” and “Anna Begins“
These songs are worth slowing down for. Put in your earbuds, take a train ride or walk the earth, and really, really listen. Or maybe dim the lights, turn up the speakers, lie back and close your eyes.
The first verse of “Round Here” is like the first paragraph of a novel. It describes existential anguish and depersonalization, putting the listener into the point of view of the main character at first, before taking it back, moving from second person to first person narration, thus further crumbling distinctions:
Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog,
where no one notices the contrast of white on white.
And in between the moon and you, the angels get a better view
of the crumbling difference between wrong and right.
Well, I walk in the air between the rain, through myself and back again.
Where? I don’t know.
All of this is delivered over the ringing guitar riff and faint organ. Duritz’s voice kind of mumbles and breaks with vocal fry, lifting up to a wistful moan, lagging behind the beat, so each line spills over to the next bar. Alongside this first-person character, we hear Maria crying at the end of the first verse, and then learn her back story in the second. Her erratic dreams and dread are no less vivid than the main character’s. The story is accompanied now by drums, whose rhythms join the vocals in their hesitant, tumbling, anxious urgency. A pulse of comforting, warm bass, and increasingly yearning organ, higher up the register, also join this verse:
Maria came from Nashville with a suitcase in her hand.
She said she’d like to meet a boy who looks like Elvis.
And she walks along the edge of where the ocean meets the land
Just like she’s walking on a wire in the circus.
She parks her car outside of my house and takes her clothes off.
Says she’s close to understanding Jesus.
And she knows she’s more than just a little misunderstood
She has trouble acting normal when she’s nervous.
In between each verse, the chorus brings a different energy and a contrasting theme. The first chorus interrupts the narrative, with nothing but cleanly strummed electric guitar and sustained organ. We are gently scalded to “stand up straight,” like we always do “round here”; it’s a reminder of the suffocating small-town world, in which the song’s characters feel so out of place. The second time around, the chorus, now with full instrumentation, begins again with still more sensible advice. But the chorus then seems to blur with the voice of the main character: “Round here, we talk just like lions, but we sacrifice like lambs. Round here, she’s slipping through my hands.” In the middle eight, we find ourselves in a nightmare, as children being called in from a lightning storm. A funky arrangement, full of wah-wah guitar, just adds to the feeling of surreal disruption. Perhaps there are no longer any sensible voices left outside the dream world? Nothing to bring them back to the normal, safe, sensible world of “round here?” The energy of this dream-bridge subsides, and we hear Maria comforting the main character, with that ringing guitar riff and a soothing drum heartbeat. Or is she comforting herself? Clearly, neither of them is in a good place. By the end of the song, the singer has taken over the chorus entirely and defiantly. As the song subsides at its close, there is desperation, dependency and despair: “I can’t see nothin’, nothin’, round here.”
Track five, “Anna Begins” is another favorite of mine. Like “Round Here” the drums and vocals work together to create a sense of emotional unease. The lyrics are discombobulating, filled with second-hand reporting of conversations and advice, confident declarations (“I am not worried, I am not overly concerned”) which are then qualified with maybes and reallys, or completely contradicted. The whole arrangement has a fidget to it, the song lacks a clear verse–chorus–verse structure, it takes a long time to get to what might be described as a chorus, and even then, ‘chorus’ doesn’t seem quite the right word for it. Rather, we are cycling through moods, ruminating on feelings, opinions, advice and decisions. “Anna Begins” is very similar to The Beatles’s “For No One,” both in the subject matter and the way the arrangement, structure and lyrics all reinforce one another.
And in spite of circuitous analysis throughout the song, despite the immense pathos and majesty of its crescendo, it’s hard to be entirely sure of the nature of the love affair about whose end we are hearing. We are trapped inside the ruminating of the main character, who doesn’t know his own heart and isn’t being entirely honest with himself. Maybe he is just a flakey guy, reluctant to commit, hence the refrain: “I’m not ready for this sort of thing.” He shrugs off the advice of his friend, who is urging him not to let this relationship slip away: “It’s all or nothing … for one time only, make an exception.” And he evades the girl’s attempts to pin him down: “‘If it’s love,’ she said ‘Then we’re gonna have to think about the consequences.’” Maybe he finally realizes that he does love her, as he watches her sleep:
And every time she sneezes I believe it’s love …
She’s talking in her sleep, it’s keeping me awake
and Anna begins to toss and turn.
And every word is nonsense but I understand.
But it’s too late because “Anna begins to change her mind … to fade away … she disappears.”
There’s so much instability in this song, it’s hard to know if that’s all there is to it. Hesitation and evasiveness make the listener doubt the main character. Is he just not that into her? Or is he scared that he is feeling something more and so is avoiding commitment out of fear? The ambiguous and melodramatic line early in the song, “and I can always change my name if that’s what you mean”, feels like it comes out of nowhere, breaking the casual veneer. It sounds like something tossed out in the heat of an argument. What does it mean? If we pretend we’re other people, we can keep it light? There are other hints at something more complex. What are the “consequences” that both characters threaten to talk about? Why the “shaking” and “shuddering”? Maybe they are both fearful of facing the fact that this ostensibly casual relationship is something more.
Or, yet again, perhaps neither of them is entirely convinced that the relationship has the potential to last. After all, early on in the song the main character says “If you don’t want to talk about it then it isn’t love.” This could be read as something the character says to Anna, in which case, she also is somewhat evasive about the significance of the love affair. Perhaps, sometimes, it is Anna who also says “I’m not ready for this sort of thing.”
There is great heartache in even the most ambiguous of loves. There are moments of romantic awakening. There is the contemplation of possible futures. There is mourning and loss. Even if both parties recognize this isn’t the real thing. Perhaps it was simply a wonderful Before Sunrise-type brief encounter. But it still meant something. This beautiful, complex, noble song gives voice to that most peculiar of griefs: for the thing that we are not entirely sure was ever really a thing, which is part of what makes it strangely sad.
Adam Duritz and the Audacity of the Rock Star Poet
For me, someone who was in their early teen years when August and Everything After was released and enjoyed heavy play over the next few years, Duritz was one of the first rock stars, along with Jim Morrison, whom I was very aware of thinking of as a poet. Because they both very deliberately styled themselves that way. It doesn’t matter if anyone thinks they are truly poets, let alone good poets. Of course, all lyricists are poets and many of them are great poets, the distinction is a silly one.
But that’s not the point. The point is that, at least for a teenager, there is power in encountering a rock star, rapper, singer-songwriter, any lyricist, who speaks to your heart and experience, who also declares themselves to be a poet. It says that what you are going through is poetry. It says that you, too, could be a poet. Your life is art. Thing is, if you put yourself forward earnestly, seriously, deeply as a poet, you are asking to be laughed at. You are dooming yourself to put a foot wrong and stumble into hokey, corny, sentimentalism. Like Duritz. Like Jim Morrison. Like Bono. But you will also therefore dare to be raw and real and deeply true.
August and Everything After is a great alternative folk-rock album. It is one of the great albums of the nineties and one of the greatest debut albums of all time. And it is literature too. It is magical. It must not be forgotten. With this album, Counting Crows deserves your full respect and attention; if you give it, they will reward it. •