Since 1993's chart-topper August and Everything After, Counting Crows' musical roots have been stuck deep in rock's past; they sounded out of time at the height of grunge and "alternative" rock. Not surprisingly, they still do. Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is a concept offering divided into halves by title with two producers: Gil Norton on Saturday Nights and Brian Deck on Sunday Mornings. Frontman and chief songwriter Adam Duritz channels his characters on their loneliest night of the week -- Saturday. Driven to distraction by loneliness, they seek connection -- through anonymous, empty sex and intoxication -- but they remain out of reach. Obsessive, urgent drives and self-destructive rage fuel every song on this half. Dirty, kinetic guitars and rim shots blast "1492" out of the gate, offering Duritz a skinny plank and he walks into the heart of oblivion. A victim of Christopher Columbus is roaming lost through the New York of Hubert Selby, Jr. He wails at nervous passersby from dingy, piss-stained doorways and street corners: "I'm a Russian Jew American/Impersonating African Jamaican/I wanna be an Indian/I'm gonna be a cowboy in the end." His companions are champagne-drinking skinny girls; they go down on him amid "railway cars and tranny whores," with the "morning spreading out across the feathered thighs of angels." Atop the glorious din he tells a truth: "Where do we disappear?/Into the silence that surrounds us/And then drowns us in the end?" Duritz is unhinged and exposed, soaring above a band that underlines every vomited bleak poetic utterance. The brooding atmospheric opening in "Hanging Tree" reflects Duritz's false bravado: "I am a child of Fire/I am a lion/I have desires...This dizzy life of mine keeps hanging me up all the time...."
The second half is a reflective side-long update of Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Comin' Down." "Washington Square" has hovering pianos, acoustic guitars, banjo, harmonica, upright bass, and brushed drums. It's a brief respite seeing drunkenly the opening of the coming day as a beautiful if desolate moment. But on the country roots ballad "On Almost Any Sunday Morning," it's been transformed into the gaping maw of a self-created hell: Jesus isn't in his soul's empty pit. The tenet of honesty that runs through these songs is informed by a sick, hungover dystopia, where dread becomes horror and feelings are bone-stripped to the marrow. Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings' protagonists are lost in existential crisis; they blame vengeful gods, angels, enemies, and even friends, but they know the truth. They are dramatically textured and framed by basic, expertly crafted rock & roll. An example is "You Can't Count on Me." Its lithe piano lines and lushly woven balance of guitars let the protagonist confess he knows he's a creep without a hint of denial or parody -- Dan Vickrey and David Immerglück's guitars push Duritz to sing: "I watch all the same parades/As they pass by on the days you wish you'd stayed/But this pain gets me high/And I get off and you know why...So if you wanted to be free...You can't count on me." These deluded characters acutely feel the separation between individual and community, the Divine, and self-image. The musical framework for these confessions is a painterly, near-perfectly balanced roots-kissed American pop and rock. Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is the other side of August and Everything After. The rocking final track, "Come Around," is a portrayal of the manic, love-starved kids from the debut who haven't grown up -- the price extracted for wasted time and broken relationships is: pervasive loneliness. Redemption lies not on some obscure horizon -- now knocking at the door -- but in facing a cracked and dirty mirror. Ultimately, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings doesn't despair, but comes dangerously close. The kids may not understand, but they don't have to. Brilliant.