Story songs don’t have to tell coherent stories - in fact, perhaps it’s better if they don’t. I can’t really be sure what all goes on in “Hold On” by Tom Waits, or “Changing of the Guards” by Bob Dylan, but maybe that’s why I keep playing them over and over. Maybe with every listen I get more clues to figuring out what exactly is going on, or maybe the story is vague enough that there are a lot of stories in there. Sometimes a mystery you haven’t solved is the most compelling; you don’t usually read a mystery novel again once you know how it ends.
Adam Duritz of Counting Crows can tell coherent stories when he wants to - take “Another Horsedreamer’s Blues,” where you get a pretty good idea of everything that’s going on - but is also a master at vague songs, like the 2008 gem “Cowboys” or the classic “Round Here.” You could write about a hundred short stories based on “Round Here” and get a different story every time, and all of them could be good.
I think Duritz picked this up from Springsteen. It was his rendition of “Thunder Road” in 2000 that led me to start looking deeper into Springsteen, and a couple of years later, when I heard “Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” for the first time, I felt like I was hearing the primordial ooze out of which Counting Crows were formed. It’s got pianos, accordions, large bodies of water, a carnival, angels (in the live version) and the expert juxtaposition of Americana imagery and primal emotional concerns that populate so many of the best Counting Crows songs.
Elsewhere on that particular Springsteen album is the epic “New York City Serenade,” which is perhaps the most obvious template for the newest Counting Crows songs, “Palisades Park” (now streaming and available for free download) a multi part song that opens with a piano, pinball machine and trumpet instrumental, turns into a rousing rock song, then turns to an artsier, free-verse coda over its nine minute run-time. You could probably do a whole essay comparing it to “New York City Serenade,” which is built on a similar structure with some similar lyrical themes, but here’s the thing: “Palisades Park” rocks a bit harder. They may only get to the chorus twice in eight minutes, but there’s nothing in “NYC Serenade” that’s quite as rousing to me as when Duritz singing about carrying that spark from Palisades Park down into the cliffs and down into the dark.
The song tells a story. After several listens I’m not sure sure exactly what that story IS, and the excellent video may or may not help, but it’s something to do with nostalgia, and hanging onto the sparks of things that inspired us once before. Maybe it’s about chasing your dreams (at least the good ones). Or fighting for a version of nostalgia that leaves out all the bad dreams and trying to get your old friends back. There are recurring characters (possibly a transgender theme). I don’t really know. But maybe it’s BECAUSE I don’t exactly know that I’m going to keep coming back to it. Or maybe it's just that the chorus works like gangbusters. It makes me want to carry that spark from Palisades Park and get further than I ever made it before.
I’ve been a Counting Crows fan since 1994. I had a strange, transcendental experience at the age of 14 riding my bike on a gray day with “Sullivan Street” stuck in my head (a friend talks about how "Darkness on the Edge of Town" made him suddenly see what sort of person he wanted to be, and that bike ride and "Sullivan Street" did it for me - suddenly everything was clear). Recovering the Satellites, their next album, was, for me, that record everyone gets at sixteen where every song seems to be about YOU (except for “Mercury,” which was about the girl I took two their concerts in 1997, still two of my favorite concerts ever, even though we spent the whole time fighting). Over the years they’ve taken some lumps, with most of the music world lumping them in with Dave Matthews-type prep rock instead of thinking of them as being more like “if Springsteen were backed by The Band.” Maybe it’s partly a result of only releasing one album of originals in the last twelve years. Either way, I’m glad they’re back, and I can’t wait for the rest of the album, Somewhere Under Wonderland, which is out in September (just a few days after my new book. Just sayin'). If the book is a flop in the stores and I end up in a bad place mentally, at least I'll have a good album to see me through it.