Posted by: Nathan | April 7, 2008

Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings

Every now and again I listen to an album I just purchased and think, “This is something special.” The Counting Crows’ latest release Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings is one such disc. It is the Crows’ most complete album since August and Everything After and their best since Recovering the Satellites. It has been almost five years since the band’s last CD, and I must say it was worth the wait.

Before I get into analysis, I should say that I purchased Saturday Nights on iTunes. Normally, I’m leery of buying albums without the actual disc, but the iTunes version comes with two extra songs and a track-by-track, twenty minute interview with Adam Duritz, which is fascinating. If my thoughts on the album seem especially profound, it’s because of Duritz’s comments; if not, then that’s nothing new. If you haven’t yet bought the album and have iTunes, do yourself a favor: pay the extra $2.00 and get an even better CD.

The album title derives from how the disc is arranged. The first half of the disc (tracks 1-6) is the Saturday nights section, and tracks 7-13 are Sunday mornings. “Come Around” is the conclusion of the disc. Saturday and Sunday are symbolic here. Saturday night is all about dissipation, self-destruction, and throwing oneself out into the void of life. It’s pleasure-seeking, reckless, and dangerous. Sunday morning is the proverbial “morning after,” when one wakes up to confront life and reckon with all that happened previously. Regardless of how far one has delved into the exciting and dark void that life offers, the combination of these days is something human–something we’ve all experienced in one way or another.

Perhaps most exciting for me was listening to the first half of the album and hearing the ripping electric guitar and driving beat. This kind of rock ‘n roll is something we’ve known the Crows are capable of (cf. “Angels of the Silences”), but they’ve kept it under their hat for the most part until now. And the sound melds perfectly with the sense (Alexander Pope would be proud*). “!492” is the song about doing something you want and watching it blow up in ways you didn’t expect, hence the Columbus allusion. “Hanging Tree” is the fallout of “Mr. Jones”–it is Duritz’s mixed reaction to fame. We remember hearing, “When everybody loves you / that’s just about as happy as you can be,” but now that Duritz and his band have been so famous for so long, “This dizzy life is just a hanging tree.” I love the beginning to that one.

The self-destructive theme continues. “I don’t believe in Sundays /I don’t believe in anything at all” crops up in the fourth song. “Insignificant” again takes up the problem of fame: “I don’t want to feel so different / But I don’t want to be insignificant.” The mention of Icarus in this track is important also; Duritz says Icarus is behind the album throughout. To finish the first half, we come to “Cowboys” with its jangling guitars and violent imagery. Duritz says he imaginatively takes his self-destructive impulse too far on this track, taking on the persona of a mass-murderer. This is the peak of chaos for the album, and since it can get no worse, the album enters Sunday morning.

You can hear the change immediately in “Washington Square.” The tone is self-reflective and pensive. The excitement has faded into emptiness, and the singer is wandering through cities and memories. “On Almost Any Given Sunday Morning” is about waking up next to a stranger: “Take a message to your head / Just stay beside her in the bed /You were so stupid / To believe in things you couldn’t see.” The supernatural theme continues into “When I Dream of Michelangelo,” one of my favorites. I should have been able to get the Sistine Chapel implication without listening to the interview, but I’m not sure I would’ve:


And I dream of Michelangelo when I'm lying in my bed
I see God upon the ceiling, I see angels overhead
And he seems so close as he reaches out his hand
But we are never quite as close as we are led to understand

Here is the artist trying to figure out the link between the divine and the earthly and inevitably coming up short.

I could go on forever, I suppose, but I’ll try to move quicker. “You Can’t Count on Me” is “the meanest song I’ve written about myself,” Duritz says. He certainly paints no flattering portrait of himself here. “Le Ballet d’Or” (“The Golden Ballet”), has a fantastic guitar part in the verses that I simply adore. And the imagery is nigh-on poetic:


We've wasted time running scared
Now Autumn's fire is ashes on the breeze
And it spins away like dust on pearls
As winter comes to usher in the evening

Though the invocation is to come and dance, this doesn’t seem like the same kind of reckless dance we’d expect on Saturday night; it is the need to keep going. “On a Tuesday in Amsterdam…” is a lovely, delicate song about loss. Just FYI, Duritz wrote it in Amsterdam on a winter afternoon, he says. You can hear it.

So the songs flow from dispersion and energy to contemplation and emptiness. “Come Around” is the conclusion of the album because it is Counting Crows’ message to their fans. “We don’t have life figured out, but we’ll keep going,” they seem to say.

The lyrics, musicality, instrumentation, and vocal urgency are truly remarkable. This is an intricately arranged album. And you don’t have to over-think it like I did to enjoy it. You get caught up in the emotions and the sounds. This is the best new album I’ve heard in quite some time. Bravo.

*From An Essay on Criticism: ” The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.”

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Responses

  1. Great review! I really enjoyed it. I downloaded my album from the Amazon MP3 store for $8.99, but I’m sad to have missed out on Duritz’s interview and the two extra songs.

  2. This really is a great review. I enjoyed the extra input from Duritz that you provided. It definitely brought some ideas together for me. I caught on to some of the themes, but you had much more detail…I hadn’t thought of “Come Around” in that light!

    I bought the CD in hard copy at Best Buy for $9.99. It’s got a good wallet, but I wanted more from it… Duritz comments in the wallet that “Records SHOULD be what they’re MEANT to be”, and that this record was met with a lot of disapproval during the writing and recording process.

    This CD really was a re-birth of raw, emotional and beautifully moody Crows. Best album since Recovering the Satellites is right.

    I’ve listened to this CD at work probably 5 times in the last week, and “1492” plus the pair of songs that transition the album,”Cowboys” and “Washington Square” combine to make up my favorite songs.

    Last thing: Please tell me you watched the NCAA Championship Basketball game last night!! That was some of the most exciting, athletic basketball I’ve ever seen. And the game-tying three with 2 seconds left!! Incredible.

  3. Well…sorry. Didn’t watch the game. I really don’t have anybody to watch that kind of thing with. J & I watched Atonement instead.

    Looks like it was a whale of a game.


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