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The Loneliness of the Alt-Rock Anniversary

Twenty years later, why Counting Crows' August and Everything After is as meaningful as Nirvana's In Utero

It was a good system: Each generation would get its turn at the media steering wheel, allowing people in their thirties and forties to talk incessantly about how anything and everything that happened in their teens and early twenties was tremendously consequential and yet somehow criminally underrated. After that, these people were swept aside, and the next generation would rewrite history all over again. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, when baby boomers had their run memorializing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and the game-changing brilliance of All in the Family with countless Time magazine covers and major TV network retrospectives. I assumed something similar would happen for the MTV debut of “November Rain” and the revolutionary competence of ABC’s TGIF lineup. And I guess that did happen, sort of. Arsenio Hall has a talk show again. Ed Kowalczyk is still putting out solo records. My people allowed these things to happen. But the world has changed.

By the time my generation had its hand on the controls, the media power structure was diminished. Now we can’t force kids to watch our nostalgia fests. Instead, we have to be satisfied with the Internet and social media, where it’s more difficult to proclaim the superiority of the past over the din of nattering youngsters. “The kids are coming up from behind,” some old dude whose band broke up in a distant time called 2011 once said. In the postapocalyptic media hellscape, you have to fight for your sliver of attention 140 characters at a time.

The reality of a perpetually splintering media culture is that it’s very difficult to not be wholly aware of your own relative insignificance.1 For instance, those boomers could wax poetic about how Jimi Hendrix ended the war in Vietnam with his incendiary rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock; they believed they were acting in the interest of history and not their own solipsism. But in 2013, everything in the media seems solipsistic — there are just too many constituencies with fully formed, well-articulated points of view to pretend that most experiences are universal. The downside of this is that it reminds us how utterly alone we are, alienating everyone. But it invariably has also made the public savvier about how the media frames reality in accordance with a certain (and not always amenable) agenda. A person who argues that anything is equally “important” to all people is immediately suspected of being full of shit.

This is why I’ve chosen to write about In Utero by talking about August and Everything After.

In accordance with its 20th anniversary, the third and final Nirvana studio album is being reissued next week. In Utero will arrive in a variety of packages, including the requisite four-disc “super-deluxe edition” that include more than 40 tracks of unearthed B sides, demos, live cuts, and rehearsal tapes. One of these tracks, an instrumental called “Forgotten Tune,” is being touted as a recently unearthed discovery.2 The In Utero reissue will also present a newly remixed version of the record, along with the original LP overseen by producer Steve Albini — a curious choice considering the trumped-up controversy over In Utero‘s supposedly unlistenable sound quality that dominated the discourse about the record before it was released. Of the many acts that have been perpetrated over Kurt Cobain’s dead body, cleaning up In Utero might not be the most egregious,3 but it does seem to contradict the spirit of the project.4

I’m not going regurgitate the reasons why In Utero is the most artistically trenchant statement to emerge from the ill-fated grunge movement, nor am I going to delve into my own past to illustrate the intensity of my personal connection to this album.5 I’m also not going to do the opposite of this and build a counterintuitive argument about how In Utero actually isn’t that good and why millions of people are dumb for caring about it 20 years later. On the off chance you’re not already sick to death of reading about Nirvana, let me state the following for the record: I think In Utero is the fourth-best rock album of the ’90s, behind Radiohead’s OK Computer, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and Guided by Voices’ Alien Lanes. It has probably my favorite “track one, side one” of all time, “Serve the Servants,” which also has my favorite opening line to an album ever: “Teenage angst has paid off well / now I’m bored and old.” Dave Grohl’s drums have never sounded better than they do on In Utero. (The only counterargument is Foo Fighters’ The Colour and the Shape.) When I play In Utero now, it’s still powerful in that familiar raw and ravaged way, though it’s impossible for me to hear this album strictly as music and not as a full-on evocation of my high school years.6

I’m reluctant to delve deeper because I suspect there will be plenty of other people who will be delving the hell out of In Utero in the next week. Music websites have turned “anniversary” stories on classic albums into a cottage industry. Records a lot less notable than In Utero are rehashed and re-celebrated on a near-weekly basis. I’m not knocking it — I’ve written these stories myself. They’re fun. Readers enjoy clicking on breaking news about their own iTunes queues, and rock critics like paying homage to records they’ve been thinking about for most of their lives. For a music writer, having the opportunity to exhume classic albums and perform your own autopsy is like a political reporter getting an invite to re-report Watergate.

Rather than investigate In Utero, I’m interested in revisiting a record that was released one week earlier, Counting Crows’ August and Everything After.7 I wouldn’t say I like August and Everything After as much as In Utero, but it’s not far off. I was a huge fan of both records in ’93 — and still am in ’13 — and I know I’m not the only one. August and In Utero existed in essentially the same context — their videos were played during the same Alternative Nation segments on MTV, their singles were heard on the same radio stations, and many of the people who bought the Nirvana record also bought the Counting Crows record.

August was actually more popular than In Utero, eventually selling 7 million copies. The album’s big hit, “Mr. Jones,” is arguably better known than any Nirvana song with the exception of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And it’s not like Counting Crows fell off the face of the planet afterward: Its next record, Recovering the Satellites, debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard album charts, and every Counting Crows album since then has debuted in the top 10 (save for 2012’s all-covers record, Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation), which entered at no. 11). Counting Crows’ most popular radio songs of the 21st century — an execrable cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and the Shrek 2 dreck “Accidentally in Love” — are easily the worst tracks in the band’s catalogue, which hasn’t helped its already deficient coolness quotient. But the band’s output has been admirably consistent and worthwhile (if not especially voluminous) over the course of two decades.

Counting Crows And yet I suspect that August and Everything After won’t get the same coverage as In Utero. They certainly haven’t been put on the same plane before now, and the reason why is obvious: Counting Crows has a bad-to-nonexistent standing with most critics.8 Music writers either don’t like them or don’t consider them worthy of thinking about one way or the other. Among “normal” people, Counting Crows is a group you can casually mock without having to justify it. I don’t think it’s necessarily the consensus opinion that Counting Crows sucks, because I know plenty of people who couldn’t care less about the band’s albums but will concede that “Round Here” is a great song. It’s just accepted that Counting Crows signifies a lot of what’s retroactively considered embarrassing about ’90s rock — the earnestness, the over-the-top emotionalism that veers into whininess, and the weird combination of sullenness about fame and the intense interest in crafting singles that are still played endlessly on the radio.

What’s funny (or maybe just confusing) about all of this is that what makes Counting Crows seem dated in the minds of serious music fans is what also makes Nirvana seem immortal. The canonization of Kurt Cobain is based on the premise that he was an “authentic” person — he critiqued the star system while also embodying what a rock star is supposed to be, and he did so better than any musician of his time (or since). Adam Duritz, meanwhile, isn’t perceived like that, even though he’s authentic in a similar way.9

I’m not suggesting that Counting Crows is as good as or better than Nirvana, or that Duritz deserves the same iconic status that’s afforded to Cobain. My point is that we’ve chosen to remember Counting Crows as being more different from Nirvana than it really was in 1993. Both bands were signed to the same label, Geffen. (They even had the same A&R guy, Gary Gersh.) They were both known primarily for songs (“Mr. Jones” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) that commented ironically on the entertainment industry. August and Nirvana’s Geffen debut, Nevermind, were both pop-oriented smashes that led to noisier, angrier, and less successful follow-ups.10 The no. 2 tracks on August (“Omaha”) and Nevermind (“In Bloom”) are set in unforgiving rural environments; the no. 8 tracks (“Sullivan Street” on August, “Drain You” on Nevermind) are about romantic breakups. Both bands were fronted by singer-songwriters known for their struggles with mental illness and love lives that unfolded in the tabloids. The difference is that Kurt Cobain is now an eternally romanticized dead person, while Adam Duritz exists among the eternally awkward living.

If you’re a songwriter who’s known primarily for writing sad or even downright depressing songs, you typically fall into one of two camps. The first is preferable, and it’s reserved for the “tangentially” sad. “All Apologies” is a tangentially sad song. The subject matter isn’t necessarily morose — Cobain dedicated “All Apologies” to Courtney Love and Frances Bean, which suggests that he associated the song with his attempt to find an oasis of peace in his life. But it’s impossible to hear “All Apologies” now and not think about Cobain’s death. Like much of In Utero and the entirety of MTV Unplugged in New York, “All Apologies” now seems to be exclusively about the events that led up to his suicide. It’s a sad song because of how it relates to the person who created it and the tragedy that eventually befell him — this is also true for songs by Nick Drake, Joy Division, and Jeff Buckley, among others.

The second camp is a lot less glamorous — it’s just realistically sad. “Anna Begins” by Counting Crows is an example of a realistically sad song. It describes a scenario that occurs in nearly everyone’s life at least once (if you’re lucky) between the ages of 16 and 23: A person falls in love with a friend, the friend is interested in possibly reciprocating, they consummate their feelings, it doesn’t work, and the relationship is ruined. The song is so direct and plainspoken that it hardly seems like art;11 it just sounds like dialogue that’s been transcribed from a million arguments between emotionally exhausted parties:

It does not bother me to say this isn’t love
Because if you don’t want to talk about it then it isn’t love
And I guess I’m going to have to live with that
But I’m sure there’s something in a shade of gray
Or something in between
And I can always change my name if that’s what you mean

I don’t know if I ever said those exact words to a woman, but I’ve said something like those words. And hearing Duritz sing them never fails to make me cringe a bit. Not because it makes me think about Duritz and the circumstances of his life, but because it makes me think about my life, and not a particularly good part of my life. This is Duritz’s unique talent as a songwriter: He vividly re-creates the feeling of your lowest of personal lows — the “it’s 4:30 a.m. on a Tuesday and it doesn’t get much worse than this” moments that many of us would just as soon forget.12

Listening to In Utero makes those moments seem noble; it connects you with a rock legend and elevates your feelings to similarly larger-than-life status. Listening to August and Everything After makes loneliness seem like what it really is: a small and pitiful feeling drenched in a disgusting cocktail of tears and snot that causes outsiders to recoil. If talking about culture is really a vehicle for people to talk about themselves, then it’s not surprising that remembering the former is more tantalizing than remembering the latter. In Utero represents who we’d like to be; August and Everything After is who we want to hide. It’s not musical history we’re revising. It’s our own.

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden