Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz is his own best enemy, forever trapped in a dreadlocked head that issues inspiration and frustration in equal, unpredictable bursts. It's not easy being him; it's not all that easy being a fan, either.
After '90s LPs August and Everything After and Recovering the Satellites — modern-classic chronicles of love and longing, stunning promises of a special career blooming — the roots-rocking Crows have been at the mercy of Duritz's diminishing skills. Ensuing albums were increasingly diluted, unfocused, soon to be dusty at the bottom of your CD stack. Our Man of Eternal Pining, the former future Bob Dylan (or so he yelped on breakout hit Mr. Jones), went dark, forgotten, gone.
Until now, that is.
A month after Duritz's 50th birthday, a milestone that seemingly untangled his beautifully beleaguered mind, the Crows have released Somewhere Under Wonderland, the band's first original material in six years — and their best in twice that long. The album reunites the crew with a major label, Capitol Records, which means some executives somewhere heard something really good. Indeed they did.
Duritz is writing catchy, sob-along songs again, fast ones (the fun wordplay of Scarecrow), slow ones (acoustic wisp God of Ocean Tides), all of them lovingly faded postcards of days, and paramours, gone by. The themes are the same as always, but the narratives are once again built in seductively layered, ear-pleasing ways. The album is also a surging reminder that the Crows' strengths go far beyond Duritz's wounded holler and heart-sleeved lyricism; the band is an incredible engine. Dan Vickrey's Southern switchblade guitar is all over this record, a constant defiant uplift set against the singer's mournful remembrances.
Much of Somewhere Under Wonderland is upbeat, at least tempowise. Along with Scarecrow, Earthquake Driver is the most obvious "single" the Crows have popped out in years, rollicking in its crunchy-hippie California-ness. And yet the album's high point is a slow one, piano-dirge closer Possibility Days, which earns a place among the band's best, and most brutal, ballads. Fair warning: It's a doozy, an unflinching look at a good thing gone helplessly sour. A sorta-stripped reimagining of A Long December, the breakup cut opens with this utterly Duritzian poetry: "It was a cold 3 a.m. 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." Yep, and it gets a whole lot bleaker after that.
Crows fans are a cautious lot, and with good reason. At first glance, opening track Palisades Park can cause pause: more than eight minutes long, several tonal shifts. Uh-oh. But when Duritz is good, he's really good, and almost everything on the album works to a fine degree. After a sunrise trumpet solo, Palisades Park gets faster in flipping chapters, Duritz embracing the funhouse freak-show that is his life. ("There's a Wild Mouse spinning the girls around.") The epic chug is reminiscent of 2000 gem Mrs. Potter's Lullaby, written for actor Monica Potter, one of Duritz's myriad celeb exes, a list that famously includes the Friends duo of Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox.
The first time through Somewhere Under Wonderland I wasn't quite sure what I was hearing: Is this a truly great Counting Crows album? Or am I wishful thinking? But then I kept listening, not just for a review, but just for me as well, which, as any critic will tell you, is the mark of something special. Maybe Duritz's 50s will be a bountiful creative period. Or maybe he'll once again get lost in that bedreaded head of his. Oh, the price of an overworked brain and those who adore it. All you can do is enjoy the highs, endure the lows and try to be patient during the journey in between.
Contact Sean Daly at email@example.com. Follow @seandalypoplife.