Here's my review of SNASM, written in April of 2008. I thought it might as well be here as anywhere.
So I thought I would finally write about this record. I've had it a good number of weeks now ever since my friend Sean gave me an advance copy (I leaked it to no one and later bought it twice, such is my devotion to this band). Sean's review can be found here: http://www.thefugitivemotel.org.uk/?p=370
There's been a lot of talk press coverage that I've seen for this album about it being a 'return to form' . I've concluded that this is a consensus I can't agree with, not because of the album itself but because I believe it is terminology that simply can't be applied to the band or their output - Counting Crows never had a form to return to. They're just a really really good band that puts out really really interesting and diverse records and that's how they're still around after 15 years and why they've just added another completely brilliant record to their cannon.
Make no mistake - Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings is not an easy record to listen to. It is, more often than not, the exact opposite. But what makes it difficult is also what makes it so good, and why after multiple listens you'll still be finding something new it in that had previously lain undiscovered. Like all good concept albums (are there really that many?) considering the context behind the concept is not essential, but will hopefully increase appreciation for the piece as a whole and help take the listener further into those far hidden depths.
This is certainly the case here, and the definite duality of the album is so important that it's clearly defined not just in the music but also in the album artwork, so that there can be no misunderstanding . Described by Adam Duritz as '....Disintegration, ruining your life, then crawling from the wreckage. How you put your life back together after you've ruined it, basically. Not necessarily sin followed by redemption.....its kinda more like the binge and then the hangover' the album charts a deeply personal journey across 14 songs (excluding various bonus tracks depending on what country you live in and how you bought the record) and leaves you knowing only one thing for sure: you have to listen to it again.
Saturday Nights kicks off with 1492, the hardest, fastest and darkest song Counting Crows have ever recorded. It's a raw, bold and arresting opener that sets the tone in no uncertain terms for the first half of the record. The imagery of seedy underground clubs and transvestite prostitutes combined with searing guitar work creates a song that is no less than exhausting, and the perfect way to get your attention. Hanging Tree is the perfect follow up - a cautionary tale about how the choices you make and the way you live your life can make you lose yourself, and ultimately become your own worst enemy in the process. More biting guitars here, as well as a damn catchy chorus, make it one of the early highlights.
Los Angeles- co-written by Duritz, Gigolo Aunts' Dave Gibbs, and Ryan Adams - is the sound of the band having fun, a sloppy blues-rock anthem hailing rock star debauchery, drinking, women, and friendship. Sundays follows, and with its almost disco groove and catchy closing refrain it manages to be one of the most funky and distinctive songs the band have ever done, whilst still retaining a genuine emotive quality. Insignificant is another brilliantly dark moment, the anger and desperation in Duritz's vocal serving as a stark reminder of the brutal and frightening personal reality from which these songs have come.
This is further cemented with Cowboys , the point at which all hell breaks loose. The song is a poignant reflection of when, a few years ago, Duritz was seriously beginning to unravel, struggling to juggle the demands of his lifestyle and simultaneously battle with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Conceived as 'the worst possible extension' of his mentality at the time, Duritz has cited the song as a turning point for both himself and the band in terms of feeling able to write and record complex arrangements once more. It certainly shows, and as David Immergluck's blistering guitar outro sends the universe into meltdown you realize that this is not just a centrepiece for the entire album, but the perfect way to end Saturday Nights.
Sunday Mornings begins with Washington Square, a beautiful acoustic number with sparse arrangement and a wistful melancholy that provides the absolute antithesis to all that has gone before and highlights the stark contrast, musically and lyrically, in the two sides of this record. On Almost Any Sunday Morning takes the dark, detached paranoia of Cowboys and transports it into a hopelessly sad and disconnected cycle of meaningless yet seemingly compulsory bedroom encounters. The numbness of this situation is conveyed through spacious, dark music and stream of consciousness style lyrics - a fresh approach in many ways for Counting Crows and one that is used again to surprising effect later on, in the stunning and equally haunting Le Ballet D'or.
When I Dream Of Michaelangelo is probably the song on the album that had the longest journey from conception to completion, with Duritz stating recently that he 'started it 20 years ago but had no idea how to write it'. To that end, hardcore fans and long time followers of the band will recognise parts of the lyric used in Angels Of The Silences from 1997's Recovering The Satellites. The song deals with faith, love and the eternal longing to find that one connection - whether it be in the divine or the ordinary - that will make life meaningful. Again the music is folksy, jangling and mellow.
Anyone But You has a somewhat beatle-esque quality, tinged with jarring electric guitars and the downbeat sadness of someone who is unable (or perhaps unwilling) to fully connect with someone in a relationship. The ending of this song is unique and colourful, as a Brian Wilson style vocal motif evokes the clear image - at least in my mind - of a flock of crows sitting on a wall, cawing to each other in some busy, chaotic retelling of an important tale.
You Can't Count On Me, the first official single from the album, shares the same themes as Anyone But You but examines the breakdown of a relationship from the perspective of both people involved. The gutsy guitar work is also the closest we get to anything on Saturday Nights here, providing a little more contrast in the middle of the quieter side. On A Tuesday In Amsterdam Long Ago takes things back down a notch, with a simple yet striking vocals/piano combination that effectively paints what might just be the saddest picture on the album - a deep and genuinely haunting lament for a lost loved one.
Fittingly, the album ends on an optimistic note. After all Counting Crows have been through in the years since 2002's Hard Candy (constant touring, a best of compilation, an Oscar nomination, the replacement of their drummer and bassist, a live album, their lead singer's struggle with mental illness, and the near break up of the band) the fact that they are back with a new album and playing better than they ever have before is without doubt a cause for celebration. It is precisely this ethos that is the basis for final track Come Around. Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings is as good if not better than anything else Counting Crows have done, either musically, lyrically or conceptually and with Gil Norton and Brian Deck on production duties they've come up with their most ambitious and unique album yet.
I'm hoping to get to see them at either Hyde Park or Liverpool this year and if not I have my fingers crossed that they'll be back in the UK soon!