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On September 14, 1993 Counting Crows released their first album August and Everything After, and twenty-two years later it’s worth recognizing that this album, despite its all-too depressing lyrics, just never gets old.

More than anything, the album is about transience. Several sources suggest that the band pulled its name from an old saying that goes something along the lines of: “If you hang onto the flimsiness of anything you may as well be standing there counting crows.” I suppose that because birds come and go, and because they’ll dizzy you up with all their flapping anyway, it’s a useless task to try and count them, and it’s definitely not something to stake your worth on. Additionally the the album’s title, August and Everything After, reminds me of time’s tendency to bulldoze my desire for stability and stasis. August, maybe more poignantly than other months, represents the passage of time, because it’s the end of summer and beach vacations and the potential for unstructured play time, running through sprinklers with grass between your toes; it’s the beginning of school and lines and boogers in dim grey hallways. It’s time for autumn leaves and clothes, and you no longer feel like walking around as naked as possible in the hot summer sun, which is steadily becoming a cool harvest moon.

The album took off immediately, and Counting Crows plunged headfirst into the weedy pond of 90s rock fame. Lead singer Adam Duritz said, “I thought my songs were so personal on that record that no one else would be able to relate to them, but it turns out that the personal details you give make it much richer for everyone else…. They are all just about me.” The details are so personal that they’re primal–they’re universal.

“Round Here,” the opening track, recounts the experience of a young man trying to leave behind his old life, which is characterized by rigid structures and a foggy “white on white” landscape. It’s a life of laws: “Round here we always stand up straight…we’re carving out our names…we all look the same.” It’s a life in the rat-race, the well-traveled track with pitstops at prestigious colleges and envy-inducing newsfeeds and a maxed-out 401K, all while wearing jogger pants and looking totally under control. It’s the life that makes promises it can’t keep and tells the character in the song that if he does certain things and squeezes himself into the mold, then he will be somehow fulfilled and that all his efforts will amount to something; but the character, maybe the family’s black-sheep artist, realizes these laws are hollow, so he walks out the front door and leaves it all behind in search of emancipation–which doesn’t arrive.

Because throwing out the rulebook doesn’t mean freedom–it just means a new rulebook. Worse, what he soon realizes is that in abandoning the laws of the rat-race, he’s also abandoned any sort of connection he had with the people he loved and the people who loved him. By the end, the character, free of the standards that once shackled him, admits that at last he has “lots of time. Round here we’re never sent to bed early, and nobody makes us wait. Round here we stay up very, very late.” Sure, he has the freedom to slouch and be his own person and live like a wanderer, and in theological terms, he’s a full-fledged antinomian. But instead of becoming a light-hearted mmbop (the sure sound of freedom), the song spirals off into a wailing climax: “I’m under the gun. I can’t see nothing round here.” The problem isn’t the rulebook or the lack of rulebook–the problem is the character himself, that no matter where he goes, he’s still a castaway (L&G). Later in the album, a song entitled “Time and Time Again” explains, “Time and time again I can’t please myself.”

A Murder of One” is the album’s finale, and it seems to be in conversation with the opener. Also about a rule-follower, this song describes a girl who plays it safe and clings in fear to the familiarity of her world. She’s counting crows, a task that she will never complete and never stop trying to. And her friend, the narrator, observes her, saying, Hey, isn’t there anything more than this? Because sure, you’re following the rules, but “your love is just a dream.” She’s alone: a ‘murder’ of crows means a flock of crows, and the song title, “A Murder of One” suggests that not only is she alone, but that the law is going to kill her. Whereas in “Round Here,” the main character gave the law his middle finger, here, it’s the opposite because the main character clings like a koala to the law. And “it’s such a shame,” because you wish there was a third option, because you know that the song’s first and final command to “change” is easier said than done and that even though the main character spreads his wings, “feathered by the moonlight,” he can’t fly his way to heaven. He must be taken there.

“Omaha” traces the third option, that it’s neither about obeying or disobeying the law but rather love. The first line, “Start tearing the old man down,” reminds me of how Jesus’s arrival kickstarts the death of the old Adam. Another refreshingly biblical lyric goes: “Start turning the grain into the ground/roll a new leaf over.” This lyric actually helps me interpret Scripture: obviously the song is about change, and Jesus, having used a strikingly similar image (Matt 13, Mark 4), must be focused on change, too. Sowing seed is a go-to image if the topic is change. And, in both the Gospel and this Counting Crows song, the nexus of change is the same: moving from the external to the internal, from the hands to the heart. Because while hands can obey the law, only the heart can give and receive love.

Omaha
Somewhere in the middle of America
Get right to the heart of matters
It’s the heart that matters more

Whereas “Round Here” and “A Murder of One” squabbled over the best interpretation of the law, “Omaha” reminds us that it’s the heart that matters more. Particularly for anyone putting their stock in strength and miracles, “You better turn your ticket in, and get your money back at the door.” Strangely, Omaha, while being at the geographic heart of America, is also in what some would consider a fly-over state, a marginalized place.

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“Mr. Jones” also tackles the heart level, illustrating the unquenchable desire for more. To be more funky, to be more famous, to have more guts to hit on a black-haired flamenco dancer named Maria. The lines are all about the want:

“I want to be a lion.”
“I want to be Bob Dylan.”
“I wish I was beautiful.”
“Mr. Jones wishes he was someone just a little more funky.”

And the most repeated want is the want to be famous: “We all wanna be big stars, but we don’t know why and we don’t know how.” In culture, the desire to be famous is typically associated with a self-esteem boost, or a sense of self-worth and accomplishment, but for the poor narrator in “Mr. Jones,” it’s all about love: “When everybody loves me,” he says, “I will never be lonely.” Again, Counting Crows reminds us that, whether we’re observing the sabbath day or playing a gray guitar, nothing we do can truly fulfill us. “It’s the heart that matters more,” and on some level “Mr. Jones” realizes this.

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“Perfect Blue Buildings” deals with a character who lives in perfect blue buildings with an oceanfront view, and, despite all this, he’s still sick and needy and completely, one hundred percent a problem child. In saying that he needs “a little oblivion to get myself away from myself and me,” he argues that the absence of self is really the best vacation, the purest form of rest. In John the Baptist terms, “I must decrease.” It’s possible that the narrator of “Perfect Blue Buildings” is a clinically depressed and an exceptional human being, but it seems that millions of people identify with this pathos given the sky-high album sales and also the following lyric:

There’s a skeleton in every man’s house
Beneath the dust and love and sweat that hangs on everybody
There’s a dead man trying to get out

I take these lyrics as, in the simplest terms, a reminder of death, which is a lurking reality for every person in the world, ever, and that death isn’t a dark hooded figure waiting for us to enter the cornfield–death is us. It’s a fundamental part of who we are, and it’s inside: “he not busy being born is busy dying.”

“The Rain King,” isn’t any more optimistic despite its catchy tune, and it follows an artist who is depressed but in an indulgent way, and he over-emotes and rains all over everyone he meets. The character believes that his pursuit of pain makes his art better, and even though it’s self-satisfying for him, nevertheless the focus on death remains truthful, especially because here we have a tiny shaft of light–the rare glimpse of an empty tomb:

When I think of heaven
(Deliver me in a black-winged bird)
I think of dying
Lay me down in a field of flame and heather
Render up my body into the burning heart of God in the belly of a black-winged bird

Just stabbing in the dark, but it’s possible that the black-winged bird represents art (Counting Crows), but it’s a dark form of art, a death-centric form. And that’s the vehicle for his deliverance. Regardless of how you lay out the symbol map, the pattern remains: death then life. Maybe for Counting Crows art is the co-factor; for me it’s grace, and sometimes the two aren’t so different.

August and Everything After isn’t an empowering live-this-life kind of album. It’s just a couple of dudes looking honestly at themselves, saying, I’m going to die. And voila: an album that shines like a pearl after twenty-two years, because a dose of this reality is so helpful when we drive out of our SATs feeling like we failed, and when we break up with our girlfriends and feel like villains, and when we leave home for college and get just a little bit homesick.

Here’s to hoping my interpretation treats the songs justly–there’s a wealth of commentaries and interviews and backstories about August and Everything After, just further evidence that this album does have some gas in its tank, but to be honest, I’m not a collector, and I don’t have the deluxe edition, and I haven’t done extensive back research. All I have done is listen to the album again and again and again, because it was the first CD I put in my car the day I got my license, and it was the soundtrack for a lengthy period of human development, and it’s probably, ultimately, some significant percentage of the reason I find the Christian message so attractive. Because if you listen to August and Everything After, you might begin to feel that everything is transient, that everything is passing; you might look out the window and find that it’s September 14 and the leaves are already falling, and that everything, including people and religions and death itself, will one day pass away.