Albums that changed my life – ‘August and Everything After’ by Counting Crows

Albums that changed my life – ‘August and Everything After’ by Counting Crows

August 5, 2018 Off By Glenn McDonald

An essay outlining why Counting Crows’ ‘August and Everything After’ is an album that changed my life – from a series of essays about albums that have had an undeniable impact on the person I have become, and why I love them. Come on a track by track journey as I re-listen to ‘August and Everything After’ and reflect on the impact it had on my life.

The Album ‘August and Everything After’ by Counting Crows was released in late 1993, although I’d say it was probably the following year by the time I heard it. The seminal track ‘Mr Jones’ achieved chart success in Australia peaking at number 13 in early 1994, and there was something about this track that grabbed me, and made me want to investigate Counting Crows further. This was one of the first albums I purchased, taking a calculated gamble based on ‘Mister Jones’ and a quick listen in the record store. The lyrical composition, the musicality, the intensity in Adam Duritz’ voice, and the faint nostalgic air of middle America that was pervasively infiltrating the popular culture that I was consuming at the time, all made me want to venture a bit further into the world of Counting Crows. I have always been a fan of listening to an ‘album’ from start to finish, and admire the skill and talent that makes an album more than the sum of its parts or individual tracks. I love it when an artist takes you on a journey with an album; through love, loss, yearning, reflection, contemplation, appreciation, and celebration and ‘August and Everything After’ delivers in spades.

I was 15 years old when I purchased ‘August and Everything After’ and I think I had only had a CD player for a year or so. It was a cheapish mini-system with a record player, two cassette decks, radio, and single CD player. Although I owned a few records and many tapes, at that stage in my life I only owned a couple of embarrassing compilation CDs and was keen to expand my collection further. CDs were expensive in those days though, and the $31 sticker price of CDs during the early 1990s meant that I was discerning with my music purchases.

August and Everything After opens with an atmospheric background organ drone setting the tone for the equally atmospheric entry of Dave Bryson’s clean tone Gibson guitar picking the opening notes of the ‘Round Here’. For a few bars the chord progression sets the scene for a moody and contemplative track and when Adam Duritz sings the first line of the song it gives me chills. Now over twenty four years later the first lines of ‘Round Here’ still make goosebumps appear on my neck and the hairs on my arms stand on end. From the first listen back in 1994 the line has been etched on my mind and I still consider it to be one of the finest openings to a song or album ever. As Duritz expresses the lyric nonchalantly, he somehow manages to sound poetic, apathetic, and emotionally engaged with the lyric simultaneously. The verse begins:

“step out the front door like a ghost into a 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, and I walk in the air between the rain through myself and back again where I don’t know, Maria says she’s dying through the door I hear her crying why I don’t know”.

I had never heard such poetic prose put to music and hearing Adam Duritz’ voice deliver these lines over the crisp guitar and ethereal keyboard transported me somewhere I hadn’t musically been before. After this verse the song launches straight into a shortened version of the main chorus:

“Round here, we always stand up straight, round here, something radiates”

For a 15 year old kid coming to terms with his parents’ recent move to a small rural town this was a line that had gravity with me. Even back then I was a perceptive young bloke and this simple lyric spoke volumes to me. It described a place where people ‘stand up straight’ in order to keep up appearances, despite the deep dissatisfaction, unseen depression, struggle, sadness, and depression ‘radiating’ beneath the thin veneer of togetherness the present to the world. The verse and chorus combined spoke to me about the way that we accept the status quo because it’s easier than challenging things, and the ethical and moral codes we break ourselves trying to subscribe to, even though it can end up killing us. And poor Maria crying out for help just out of reach through the door, with Duritz unable to reach her serving as a metaphor for anyone who can remember a time when they weren’t really quite sure how to help a friend in need. This verse and chorus is one that I have come back to as I have struggled at times with my values, my identity, depression, what it means to be a ‘good’ person, and why I just can’t stop thinking so much and trying to unpack every little aspect of my relatively simple and uncomplicated existence. Only one verse and a chorus in and this album had already impacted me in ways I wouldn’t realise until years after my first listen. The verse continues:

“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 walked along the edge of where the ocean meets the land just like she’s walking on a wire in the circus”

For me, this verse speaks of unrequited love, the constant struggle we all endure as we ‘walk along the edge of where the ocean meets the land’ straddling the fine line between maintaining normality and completely losing our shit. As a 15 year old struggling with new emotions like love, desire, insecurity, jealousy, and empathy, this song was a helping hand, a counselor, and a confidant that I sorely needed.

The song continues with metaphoric and analogous descriptions of pride, insecurity, hopelessness, resilience, tenacity, responsibility, and hope. As the wah-altered guitar continues to drive the song to a new place, Duritz’ lyrics continue to dance around these themes. The song then abates to the original guitar-picked introduction progression before building again to the chorus where Duritz’ voice seemingly cracks under the emotional strain and desperation of his own personal struggle.

The song fades out with the original clean-tone guitar from the introduction and atmospheric Hammond organ, which signaled to me that this album would be a journey. It would be a journey through an album, and through life, as the album August and Everything After contains songs that I have continued to relate to in varied ways during different phases in my life. The album contains songs of celebration, sadness, depression, hopelessness, apathy, resilience, and joy, and these emotions are at the core of my personality, and have been for many years. Engaging with each of them has contributed to my passion, my resilience, my pessimism, my independence, and the absolute joy that I am able to find in the simple and unexpected things.

Track 2 ‘Rain King’ opens with an acoustic guitar, accordian, and drums joining together in a melancholic drone. The lyrics depict a farmer preparing for the rainy season by turning the soil and planting the seeds in the fields. Duritz’ juxtaposition of the material task of planting the seed with the metaphor of the farmer ‘turning a new leaf over’ or pursuing another life evokes images of a farmer struggling through the years, wondering what else he might have done if he could. The chorus line comes in with “Omaha, somewhere in middle America, we go right to the heart of matters, it’s the heart that matters more, I think you better turn your ticket in, and get your money back at the door”. Omaha is a synechdoche for the heart of America, and yet its farmers are simultaneously struggling to find the ‘heart’ in their menial tasks, and struggling to follow their ‘heart’ and their dreams. Something that was acutely familiar to my teenage self in my new rural location, as I watched farmers struggle with the very same things. I observed them struggle with their identity, with their work, with their economic situation, with drought, and with their family life. I also observed them struggle to find creative outlets, and display compassion, empathy, and vulnerability, even though it could reveal chinks in their armour of sun and soil hardened skin they had resulted from life on the land.

Track 3 ‘Mr Jones’ has become so ubiquitous in Australian pubs and venues that I hardly feel I need to say too much about it. Suffice to say that for me, ‘Mr Jones’ was about how the guys that are always a little bit cooler than me seemed to continually reap the spoils of life. I suspect for Duritz this may have also been the case at 15. Not that this was something to cry about, it was a fact of life that I was going to have to deal with. Not being among the most physically appealing lad to the ladies, nor blessed with excessive sporting, academic, or musical prowess, it was simply a reality of life that I would need to come to terms with. To me, ‘Mr Jones’ was also about a mentor who was much cooler than the protagonist. A mentor that had a deep love for the protagonist and a willingness to share, learn, love, and create with him. It is a song about the value of friendship, the fear we all have of loneliness, and our desire to be a little more than we are. I didn’t know it at the time, but later in life I would perform this song hundreds of times in several mediocre cover bands, in venues all over Australia. The punters at my shows always love this song and watching the way that people relate to it brings me joy every time. The cynical me could write this phenomenon off as drunk bogans on autopilot dancing and singing to songs so imprinted on their minds from years of repeated radio play, that they can recite the lyrics while on the verge of being black-out drunk however, I think there’s something a little deeper going on. For a song to become this popular, it needs to resonate with the masses. Everyone can relate to the themes present in this song and I believe it is a master work of relatability and a perceptive look into the vulnerability of friendship, and the value of true, deep, love between friends. This is something that I have strived for throughout my life. I love my friends deeply, and value their friendship the way that the protagonist in this song values his friendship with Mr Jones.

The track ‘Perfect Blue Buildings’ follows, which begins suddenly with a melancholic Hammond organ ebbing and flowing in the background. The snare and hi-hat sets a relaxed and ambling pace, and give the vocals space to breathe. The lyrics discuss entitlement and despair at the unfairness of life, and the desire to shut out the world to protect oneself. Again this is something that I related to as a young teenager. It is a lesson that I have taken with me through life too. Sometimes you need to take some time out and fall asleep in the ‘perfect blue buildings’ to protect yourself from jealousy, feelings of entitlement, and despair. ‘Perfect Blue Buildings’ continues guided by a jangly mandolin and relaxed drums just behind the beat. It provides the album’s tone with a much-needed wind down after the enthusiasm of Mr Jones, and an important prelude to the slightly more upbeat and funky ‘Anna Begins’.

‘Anna Begins’ is lyrically complex as Duritz winds his way through, under, and over the melody and beat in a playful fashion describing a concerned friend or lover discussing a relationship. He questions the nature of relationship love before landing squarely on the chorus beat with the line “This isn’t love, because if you don’t want to talk about it then it isn’t love, man I guess I’m gonna have to live without but I’m sure there’s something in a shade of grey or something in between, and I can always change my name if that’s what you need”. This lyric illustrates the compromise in love, and suggests that the perceptions of outsiders may not always be valuable when it comes to evaluating our own relationships. The turnaround in this song introduces a major chord shift, and a positive uplifting description of a love that leaves him ‘shuddering for days’ and his willingness to make the relationship work. This song probably taught me that relationships are hard work, can be perceived by others incorrectly, and sometimes result in us spending inordinate amounts of time trying to unpack the small glances, looks, comments, that our lovers unconsciously display to us each and every day. Like the closing lyric, sometimes ultimately they disappear and force us to wonder whether we really were ready for ‘this sort of thing’ at all.

The album slows again as the introduction to ‘Time and Time Again’ begins with the line “I wanted so badly, somebody other than me, staring back at me, but you were gone gone gone”. I often wondered if Duritz was talking about the same person he sings about in ‘Anna Begins’. As I pursued romantic relationships I was able to closely relate to the opening line of this song, but I also began to enjoy the occasional loneliness that I experienced. There is something in Duritz’ songwriting that encourages the listener to enjoy the emotional experiences of life, even the unpleasant ones. His lyrics prompt reflection, contemplation, and engagement with the complex emotions of the human condition. ‘Time and Time Again’ builds to a harmony-rich chorus and musical climax where Duritz’ voice again breaks with emotion as the Hammond and overdriven guitars soar.

The album abruptly changes tone with the track ‘Rain King’. With its rousing mandolin, guitar, drums, and acoustic and acoustic guitar chorus progression, the mood is immediately shifted to upbeat and joyous. The opening line calls “when I think of heaven, deliver me in a black winged bird” and always made me wonder what the significance of crows was for Adam Duritz and the band. The ‘black winged birds’ are mentioned a few times throughout the album, never explicitly, always poetically. ‘Rain King’ shifts the album and the journey in a more positive direction after the previous low-key, slow, and melancholy tracks. The pace of the song combined with the rousing chorus and short-but-sweet organ solo brings about a mood of positivity despite the pragmatic gloom of the previous tracks. This said to me that it’s worth hanging on during hard times as there is probably some joy around the corner. Also, the lyrical content of ‘Rain King’ is far from positive, so it reminds me to find the joy in the hard times.

Next up, the pace slows a little with the catchy tune, ‘Sullivan Street’. It has been said of this album and the Crows’ songwriting that they have invoked the mood and sentiment of a young Bruce Springsteen. Although Springsteen has a little more grit, and less sweet-as-sugar melodic backing, the middle-America feel is perhaps most apparent in this song. The song recalls a trip back home to ‘Sullivan Street’ where something unpleasant took place, that is now ignored but the memory remains shared between two friends that have now put it behind them, although it has obviously impacted them. Beautifully backed by Maria McKee (of ‘Show Me Heaven’ fame), Duritz’ voice again intensifies during the chorus where the emotion in his voice brings home the weight of the lyrics. During my teenage years, this song reminded me that my time in this small rural town would undoubtedly shape who I was, but it need not define who I become. I listened to this song also during a period when I was working on offshore oil platforms for up to two weeks at a time. It made me think of home in a weirdly negative and yet nostalgic way. Country towns have an impact on people, not always positive and not always negative, they leave both scars and character.

The song ‘Ghost Train’ follows and brings us the line “love is a ghost train rumblin’ through the darkness, hold on to me darlin’ I’ve got nowhere else to go”. That about sums it up for me really. We’re in this together and it might get scary but I need you to hang on to me. The series of romantic relationships that would define and shape my attitudes towards love can be summed up here. In this track, Duritz and the Counting Crows remind us of the vulnerability that we all feel, and the fact that it’s ok to be vulnerable. The better relationships (friendships and romances) in my life have consistently been the ones in which I am not afraid to show vulnerability.

Almost without warning, ‘Raining in Baltimore’ opens with the tragically evocative line “the circus is fallin’ down on its knees, the big top is crumbling down. It’s raining in Baltimore, fifteen miles east, where you should be no-one’s around, I need a phone call, I need a raincoat, I need a big love, I need a phone call”. Adam Duritz’ simple chord-based piano progression accompanies this first verse and chorus and somehow reinforces the impact of the visceral lyrics. A tale of absent friendship, of feeling lonely, needing a friend, lover, and someone to talk to. With barbed shots at the banality of small talk and the loneliness of materialist existence, this song reminds me to skip the small talk and pursue more meaningful interactions with people. I like the notion present in the song that sometimes we have things, sometimes we lose things, and sometimes we need things, but the ‘things’ that are important are the people in our lives, and the relationships we have with them. I love the musical combination of piano and accordion, and how as the song recedes and fades near the end, as the piano and Duritz’ voice slowly soften and fade into silence.

The final track of the album is ‘A Murder of One’, which begins with a tremolo-altered guitar, clean rock drums, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and bass. The chorus line always resonated with me, as the band comes together in enthusiastic vocal harmonies as they deliver the line “all your life, was such a shame shame shame, all your love, was just a dream dream dream”. For both the teenage me, and now, the message in this lyric is to live your life while you have the chance. Pursue love, be free to make mistakes, and don’t put yourself in a situation where you are looking back with regrets. I also always enjoyed the third verse which includes the lines, “well I dreamt I saw you walking up a hillside in the snow, casting shadows on the winter sky as you stood there counting crows, one for sorry two for joy, three for girls and four for boys, five for silver six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told, there’s a bird that nests inside you sleeping underneath your skin, when you open up your wings to speak I wish you’d let me in”. I’m not sure what I make of it other than it could be a reference to the richness that life may bring us in the future. There resides within us the possibility of challenge, pursuit, love, boredom, children, riches, shared secrets and the overcoming of personal tragedy. It was an appealing notion at 15. The song builds and subsides and is almost like a microcosm of the album, perhaps without the sombre tone of the middle few songs. Before the album closes Duritz sings the line change change change repeatedly, for me implying that change could be just around the corner, and equally importantly, that if you are dissatisfied with something, you owe yourself to change it. This philosophical foundation has shaped my notions of what is possible in life, and the accountability and personal responsibility I take for my life trajectory. And just like that the album fades to silence and like the first time I heard it, I am left stunned, emotionally drained and inspired, and feeling simultaneously pessimistic, positive, and confused about the meaning of it all, but isn’t that life in general. I still love this album as much as I did then and I have probably listened to it more than any other album I own. Sometimes people ask the question “if you could only listen to one album for the rest of your life, what would it be?” For me, August and Everything After is that album. Thanks Counting Crows.