Some time back Lawr wrote about the producer T-Bone Burnett, who produced Counting Crows’ first album, August and Everything After. That led me to tell a story about hearing a song on the radio, ordering the cassette, and then to my surprise discovering that I didn’t like the record at all. I don’t think I told that I took my copy and sent it to my brother in law, which he appreciated. He became a fan, as did much of a broad swath of America. A story that ran in Grantland recently says 7 million bought August and Everything After.
Steven Hyden, of Grantland, starts telling the story of Nirvana’s In Utero, which was originally released 20 years ago and has been rereleased in various deluxe sets. I also wrote about that recently. But his real story is Counting Crows’ August and Everything After, which was released one week earlier.
He really likes Counting Crows, finds Adam Duritz to be a compelling lyricist and performer and song craftsman, and he lays out a really interesting case about why Nirvana and Counting Crows are looked at now, 20 years on, so differently (and it isn’t just that one depressive songwriter shot himself and the other depressive songwriter numbed himself with medicines). The piece is a little long, and has those cute/dangerous/irksome footnotes that Grantland is known for, but I’ll let you read Hyden’s story for his explanation of the nature of sad songs, which I think is very smart and on first thought at least, right.
But I’m pretty sure he’s not right about the equivalence he makes between In Utero and August sonically. I mean, maybe some Alternative Radio stations played both, it’s possible, but these two records couldn’t be less alike in terms of their approach to music.
In Utero is a rock record with some quiet songs, while August is a poet’s record, with a jazz/folk rock accompaniment. The difference shows up most clearly in the relationship between the words and the music. Cobain and Nirvana seem to build the sound, the arrangement first, then figure out how to fit the words inside. I’m not saying this is exactly how they do it always, and it isn’t that Cobain doesn’t care about the words, but listening to Nirvana the words are always set inside the sound. Have a listen to one of the band’s quiet songs:
Adam Duritz, on the other hand, surely concocts his story songs on long pieces of paper, maybe typing madly a la Jack Kerouac and his rolls of On the Road. He’s not logorrheic, he’s a poet getting the story down, but his talent is weaving together long shaggy dog stories full of emotionally hurt people doing their best, subject to digressions and qualifications and an occasional hook. That’s the start, and it is hard to listen to a Counting Crows song’ and hear a song, per se, except for the one that is in Duritz’s vocals. Apart from that, the band does a nice job filling in around the edges, but the center of the songs are the words, not the sounds of music.
I’m not sure that this is always a weakness, but it doesn’t help if you find Duritz to be a tiresome voice. As I do. Without chops and musical drive, you keep landing on his quavery whine. But that’s a personal taste. Steven Hyden hears in Counting Crows’ songs emotions and connections that are rarely explored by rock bands, as he discusses in the article, and he finds that valuable. That’s his choice and he’s welcome to it.
They both whine. I have trouble deciphering Nirvana’s words at times, which is just as well from most of the words I CAN understand. “Eat your cancer,” sorry I can’t get into that emotion whatever it is. Surely he’s not talking self-sacrifice, the concept was as alien to Cobain as covering Freddy and the Dreamers. Musically, Nirvana is always interesting and sometimes great – no one ever made more melody out of dissonant chord changes. And of course, self-pity is as time-honored a pop tradition as there is. But I do loathe suicides. In Dante’s Inferno, the suicides are deformed leafless trees, and they can only speak when someone rips off one of their branches. That’s poetry.
Indeed it is.
Cobain’s lyrics can’t be mentioned in the same breath as The Poet’s, but I think he’s a pretty good lyricist. He stays on the subject, whatever that is, and generally avoids cliche, sometimes by being rather obscure or incoherent, but still…
Suicide is a tricky business. It sucks, obviously, and it hurts the survivors, and even if there’s a perceived motive, it casts everything that went before in doubt. Suicides may be loathesome, but when you are close to one it’s hard to countenance with the idea that the person who did this horror and the person you knew were one and the same.
For sure Nirvana’s words are hard to decipher and are cryptic (“Aqua sea foam shame?”)
And, as I told my Biletone mates the other night, when we were working on Counting Crows “Rain King,” the line “Henderson is waiting for the Sun” seems to me to be an obvious reference to Saul Bellow’s novel “Henderson the Rain King,” suggesting that, as Peter suggests, Duritz does indeed see himself as a member of the literary cadre.
But, I think Cobain’s words came from his own well known inner demons, and channeling that certainly is as powerful, if not sometimes a bit more obscure, than referencing Nobel Prize winning authors.
I am not sure about the process of songwriting for others, but for me the process is usually sort of a harmony between hearing a sing song line in my head, coupled with a riff.
For, though the words have to be catchy to me, it has to have a hook (more to come, as you shall see).
You’re right Peter, in the sense that very often the suicide is not in his/her right mind. It didn’t SEEM that way with Cobain. That could be the media’s fault. It’s definitely the media’s fault to glorify it.