When Counting Crows visits the Adler Theatre on December 16, it will be a different band from the one that scored top-10 hits with each of its studio albums from 1993's August & Everything After to 2008's Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings.
And for that, you can credit a lowly covers record.
It's more complicated than that, but in a phone interview earlier this month, singer/songwriter Adam Duritz explained that interpreting the songs of others was one of two key ingredients to the band's revitalization - which is in full bloom on this year's Somewhere Under Wonderland album. The record also hit Billboard's Top 10, and many critics have called it the band's strongest collection since its August & Everything After debut.
Counting Crows' new swagger is evident in its sets and on the album. Somewhere Under Wonderland's longest song, "Palisades Park," is its opening track and first single, and even before the record's release it kicked off the band's encores. "We played an entire summer of shows with an eight-and-a-half-minute song that nobody knew as the opening song of the encore, which is kind of crazy," Duritz said. "We had the confidence to do it."
Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings marked a sort of end for Counting Crows. Within a month of its release, Duritz revealed that he had depersonalization disorder - which he wrote in Men's Health "makes the world seem like it's not real, as if things aren't taking place. It's hard to explain, but you feel untethered."
The announcement coincided with Duritz's fatigue with the songwriting process that had sustained the band through 15 years and five very successful albums. "By the time we got done with Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings," he told me, "I was kind of fed up with being locked into this autobiographical record-making. People start to expect a certain plot arc from you, and while you can write as well as you can write, you can't change the actual plot of your life. I felt like I was not only trying to live my life to get my life together, but trying to live my life so I have a more interesting plot arc for the records. ... I was kind of tired of just talking about being crazy. It's not all there is to me."
In that context, he said, "it's not a surprise to me that I went to work on the play." Black Sun, a (still-unfinished) collaboration between Duritz and playwright Stephen Belber, gave the songwriter the opportunity to write from perspectives different from his own.
"The ... play ... was the first time in my life I'd ever written for any character other than myself," he explained. "I'd never written for other voices; I'd never written for women's voices."
To focus on writing for the play, he added, he and the band decided to record the aforementioned covers album, which was released in 2012. "The reason we made Underwater Sunshine wasn't that we were taking time off; it was just that I was working on something else," Duritz said. "We were doing all the touring with Counting Crows, but I was writing for a play at the time. I'd never done it before, and I didn't want to write for two different things at once. It seemed really confusing to be writing songs and then trying to decide whether they deserved to go to the play or the band."
Black Sun, then, gave Counting Crows the opportunity to check off something that had long been on its to-do list. "We've been wanting to make that record for a decade," Duritz said. "I get a big kick out of interpreting songs. ... You make a record like Underwater Sunshine, [and] it really makes you realize what a waste it is to spend your entire career as a musician playing one person's songs. Even if they're mine. ... I'm a musician, not just a songwriter."
And here we get to the happy accident of that record that's still paying dividends. "The weird thing was that I think because the songs weren't mine, the guys sort of subconsciously took more control themselves, made more of an investment," Duritz said.
In the past, he said, "it's got to be someone in charge, and that's been me, and sometimes that stifles other people. It's not my intention. ... But it does happen."
Recording Underwater Sunshine and ever since, he said, his bandmates "just came out and played. They're great on the record; they're really loose and they're really sort of daring to me. We got out on tour - not only the songs from that record but everything else - [and] it was like they'd been given free rein to really dive into songs, and they did. ... But it wasn't an intentional thing. ...
"We've always been a really good live band. To wake up a couple years ago in a concert and realize that we were suddenly way better was a very pleasant surprise. ...
"That last year of touring was so good after making Underwater Sunshine. We were playing better than we've ever played in our lives. And I just felt like I really wanted to make a record."
But it wasn't an easy road from that point to Somewhere Under Wonderland. Duritz had always mined his life for songs, and although Black Sun had shown him a new path, he wasn't sure how to apply it to Counting Crows.
"I've usually just written stuff on my own and collaborated with the guys to finish things," he said. "I usually finish songs in one sitting. ... A train of thought, I stick with it. [But] in the last few years, I haven't really finished anything. Usually, if I didn't finish something, it meant it probably wasn't good enough, so I just tossed it. But I started to realize I wasn't finishing anything, and so I thought, 'I'd better not throw everything out.'"
The first step was recognizing that he was writing different sorts of songs - and not necessarily inferior ones. "If you've been doing something your whole life that's blue, you recognize different gradations of blue as different gradations of quality. And you do something that's red one day. It might look like something new and interesting, but it might look like a really shitty blue. I think that's what was happening. ... I had all these ideas, and they just didn't seem like the kinds of things I wrote about. I kept throwing them out."
So after the Underwater Sunshine tour was finished last year, "I thought it was going to be easier for me to figure out stuff that was in all my notes if some of the guys came and helped me. Even though I wrote it, it might be easier for them to translate what it was."
So for a week each month, Duritz and bandmates Dan Vickrey, David Immerglück, and Millard Powers worked through his ideas and fragments.
After the first session, Duritz finished "God of Ocean Tides." The next month, "we wrote 'Earthquake Driver,' 'Scarecrow,' 'Cover Up the Sun,' 'Dislocation,' and 'Elvis Went to Hollywood' in six days, which is impossible. There's no way you should write five songs in six days like that. At that point, the bulk of the album is ... written. ...
"I would've really been in trouble if I hadn't had the guys here when I was working on the record. I was very uncertain about stuff as I was writing it. ... I was so hard on myself that I didn't see I wasn't doing something bad; I was doing something new for me. ...
"Now I look at them [and think], 'I don't know what I was thinking. That's a really good song.' ...
"I always thought that [personal songs] needed to be couched in something autobiographical. ... What I realized with the play was that I wrote some of the best songs I've ever written, and they weren't about my life at all; they were about how I felt. ... That really opened up a huge vista for me, a much broader palette to write from. ...
"I felt like I was ... being chained to the plot of my own life. The important thing isn't really that you write about what you did today; it's that you write about how you feel today. There's a lot more range in that."
Counting Crows will perform on Tuesday, December 16, at the Adler Theatre (136 East Third Street, Davenport; AdlerTheatre.com). The 7:30 p.m. show also features Twin Forks, and tickets are $55 and $69.75.
For more information on Counting Crows, visit CountingCrows.com.