Propelled by the same earthy passion that’s instilled their songs since 1993’s multiplatinum August and Everything After, Counting Crows (vocalist Adam Duritz; guitarists David Bryson, David Immergluck, and Dan Vickrey; bassist Millard Powers; keyboardist Charlie Gillingham; and drummer Jim Bogios) build each of Somewhere Under Wonderland’s nine sprawling songs around rich sonic tapestries and a storytelling-esque lyricism that yields some of their most grandiose yet intimate songs so far.
The follow-up to Counting Crows’ 2012 covers album Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation), Somewhere Under Wonderland was heavily inspired by its predecessor’s reworkings of beloved songs by artists like Bob Dylan, Big Star, Gram Parsons, and Faces. “Making the covers record did something extraordinary to the band,” says Duritz. “It really opened us up to a lot of new ideas on how to make music.” After touring in support of Underwater Sunshine, the band wrote Somewhere Under Wonderland in a few feverish bursts while camped out at Duritz’s Greenwich Village loft for several weeks in the Fall of 2013, then took to Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios in parts of December and February to pair up with producer Brian Deck (a repeat Counting Crows cohort who’s also worked with Iron & Wine, The Shins, Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s, and Modest Mouse). As the album came to life, the band saw that interpreting the work of other musicians helped expand their own songwriting and sound. “Singing other people’s material and taking on different perspectives, we sort of stepped away from music being solely a vehicle to express whatever I was going through,” says Duritz. “I started allowing myself to write about things I might never have allowed myself to write about in the past, and some really great songs came out of that.”
Borrowed from a line in the album’s quirky shuffling second track ‘Earthquake Driver’, Somewhere Under Wonderland gives a nod to Hollywood’s Laurel Canyon, which Duritz once called home. “I moved there right after all the craziness started up with us,” he says, referring to the years after the runaway success of August and Everything After. “It was kind of a place where I started over in life, and this record’s somewhat about starting over too.” Throughout Somewhere Under Wonderland, Duritz gracefully captures that feeling of renewal—a sense of beginning again despite not being entirely freed from the weight of the past—thanks to a warm and powerful vocal delivery that often embodies both hope and melancholy in a single note, as well as elegantly crafted lyrics nearly novelistic in scope. “Writing only from your own personal experience can be really limiting, so these songs are often partly telling other people’s stories, sliding in and out of the first person,” says Duritz, who notes that his recent collaboration with acclaimed playwright Stephen Belber on the in-progress play Black Sun helped reshape his lyric-writing process for Somewhere Under Wonderland.
On ‘Palisades Park’ — Somewhere Under Wonderland’s eight-and-a-half-minute-long opener—the story centres on a fictional pair of friends stumbling into self-discovery in the violently changing world of New York City in the late ‘70s. At turns exultant and heartbreaking, the piano-driven epic weaves in images of boxing legends Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries, flying horses and pinball machines, Edie Sedgwick and angel dust—all while spinning an oddball romance that sometimes unfolds into tender aphorism (“Real love outlives teenage lust/We could get wet and it keeps us warm”). That artful yet easy balance of outlandish imagery and poignant revelation endures throughout Somewhere Under Wonderland, with the gloriously fired-up ‘Elvis Went to Hollywood’ telling tales of everything from motorcycle-riding aliens to Alex Chilton’s ghost and the hard-driving, harmony-laced ‘Scarecrow’ lamenting the “American boys at the Park ‘n’ Shop/Selling their memories for a dollar a pop.” ‘Earthquake Driver’, meanwhile, counters its breezy melody with the restless energy harnessed in its lyrics (“What is the price for all this fame and self-absorption?/We turn ourselves into orphans/And then spend our nights alone”). And on “Dislocation,” Counting Crows offer a soaring but wistful exploration of isolation and identity in the modern age (“I am written in the radio/I dream on my TV”) that references Jackie O alongside subway trains, gamma rays, paper airplanes, birthday cakes, and bombs.
But this is all really nothing new. Counting Crows have long thrived on creating gorgeously textured songs whose lyrics subtly unfurl into ever-shifting moods. Formed in the Bay Area in the early ‘90s, the band achieved their breakout with the release of August and Everything After, a debut album produced by T Bone Burnett (former member of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and producer for artists including Elvis Costello and Los Lobos). With August and Everything After ultimately selling seven million copies, Counting Crows saw their sophomore album Recovering the Satellites, produced by Gil Norton (groundbreaking producer for The Pixies, Gomez, Foo Fighters) debut at number-one upon its October 1996 release and eventually go double-platinum. Endlessly furthering their reputation as an unforgettable live act, Counting Crows went on to release This Desert Life in 1999, Hard Candy in 2002, and Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings in 2008, along with the Academy Award-nominated 2004 single ‘Accidentally in Love’ and a host of live albums (including Echoes of the Outlaw Roadshow, a 2013 release whose title alludes to the ongoing music showcase co-organized by Ryan’s Smashing Life blogger Ryan Spaulding and Duritz to boost exposure for indie bands).
With Somewhere Under Wonderland, Counting Crows continue their tradition of delivering uncompromisingly honest music grounded in pure feeling—even when the stories at the center of those songs are essentially fiction. ‘Palisades Park’, for instance, not only draws on Duritz’s teen years in the wilds of San Francisco, but also mines inspiration from his life as a musician “living outside the bounds of what everyone else does, and how liberating and terrifying that can be.” One of the most rewarding elements of Somewhere Under Wonderland’s point-of-view shift, according to Duritz: a joyful venturing into some less frequently plumbed corners of his mind. “I was talking to a friend who’s a songwriter, and I asked him if he thought the songs on the record were less personal than usual for me,” Duritz says of the making of Somewhere Under Wonderland. “And he told me, ‘No, they actually seem way more personal to me. I feel like in a way, you spent the past 20 years writing this epic tragedy about living with mental illness but that’s not all there is to you. You don’t walk around depressed all day every day. You’re funny. You talk a lot of crap and you have crazy thoughts, you make these twisted associations that other people wouldn’t make. It’s not all some big tragedy. I love those records, but this is more what it’s really like to be inside your head for a little while.’”