august and everything after
one perfect album here at the end of the world
On the first day of August the heat had almost halfway broken and the dusk came a little bit quicker, even if I wasn’t ready yet to notice it. The slow heat was bleeding into the blue at the edges of the day, the summer worn-out and soft and tired of itself. By this time of year we’ve all stayed too long at the party. Walking home, I put on the same album I always put on on the first day of August. In my headphones, ten seconds of silence started, and, as though I were listening for the first time, I checked to see if something was wrong with my phone. And then the song began. I remembered that this is part of the ritual, too, getting fooled by the same little prank every time.
The opening of “Round Here,” is perfect, and I cannot tell you when I first heard it. Possibly I was in a car, possibly it was on the radio, or possibly I was in my old bedroom in California, not quite a teenager yet, years after the album came out and long after the acclaim around it had died down. I have always arrived late to everything I love.
But I have no particular memory of discovering this album or its opening song. August and Everything After has no biographical function or hook for me. I know I owned the album, and filed it away somewhere in one of those big zippered cases of floppy laminate pages in which people kept their CDs, solemnly flipping through them with a thunk and a slap as though they were illuminated manuscripts. I piled the CD with its yellow and black cover on the edge of the pile of candy-glass CD cases in my bedroom, and left it in on the floor of my mom’s car along with all the other CDs in which scraggly-haired white dudes whined about sad girls with two syllable names. But when I think about this album, it does not summon up any one event or experience, other than the general wash of being a mildly uncool teenager in Northern California in the early 2000s. It does not mean anything in my personal history, although I did spend plenty of time referencing its songs in my Livejournal. So much of the art we love is really just about our loyalty to and softness toward our own memories; so often loving an album or a book or a song is really just a way to love an obsolete version of ourselves. But August and Everything After isn’t any of that for me. It’s just a perfect album.
I spend way, way way too much time talking about how everything I love is embarrassing, to the point where it’s become a sort of dance diagram: If you want to talk about how much you love something, start by explaining why it’s embarrassing. Start with the worst thing about whatever it is you love. I used to make some joke about what else I could be doing with the part of my brain that knows every single lyric to August and Everything After. But honestly? Probably nothing, or at least nothing better. It would be convenient here to write about how embarrassing this album is, how embarrassing sad boy rock is in general, what a horrible doofus Adam Duritz is, and how this band became an ancestor and blueprint for a galaxy of further embarrassing bands all down through the two decades that followed its wildly successful release and brief cultural ubiquity. It would be nice to write something about a thing I love that is really about how I know better.
But I don’t. I just think this album is perfect. It’s not just that it’s a very good album, and not even that it’s a better album than other albums. A perfect album is different from a great album, and lots of great albums are better than lots of perfect albums. It’s not just that it’s all bangers and no skips, although it is that. It’s a vibe, but a perfect album is always a vibe. Perfect is a particular flavor, like sad or divorced or extremely online. A perfect album completes a single uninterrupted gesture from its first track to its last track. It cuts one straight line through the forest. It’s a cold shower on a hot day, an open window in a stuffy room, a cup of coffee after the first good night’s sleep in weeks. It’s a statue carved whole from a single block of marble, complete in itself, requiring neither context nor biography. I have never claimed to be a fan of The Counting Crows as a band, which is perhaps why I’ve never found it embarrassing to love this album, even after it fell way out of fashion to do so, even after it went on the list of things I was supposed to apologize for and chalk up to the gullible hyperbole of teenage emotions. My husband, who was old enough to think The Counting Crows were embarrassing and uncool the year this album came out, has always gently made fun of me for loving it so much, until I asked him if he would actually listen to it sometime. “Damn,” he texted me later that day. “That’s a perfect album.”
The thing about a perfect album is that I know almost nothing about the Counting Crows. I can’t tell you one fact about the rest of their careers, or their other albums, or how this one got made. Almost the entirety of what I know about this album that is not contained within the text of the album itself comes from this 2018 essay by my friend Harry Harris, who is a true fan of the band and writes about them—and about what it means to love a band in a larger sense—much more deeply than I ever could. It isn’t that I have made an effort not to learn any of this stuff, but rather that the way in which this album is perfect obviates the need for it to exist in any kind of context. I don’t love August and Everything After because it’s embarrassing, or because it meant something to me at a certain time in my life. I love it because loving August and Everything After is an objectively correct reaction to August and Everything After.
Monday was the first day of August, so I put on this album. August is an anxious, indolent month, a nervous humid waiting room, the last day of vacation on a three-day weekend. Everybody is at once trying too hard to squeeze the last drops of joy out of the summer, and too sleepy to really make an effort. Work and school and winter lurk at the edges of our vision. On a hot afternoon crossing the street in a city, everything smells like chlorine. Those of us without summer homes worry about blackouts and electricity bills. A thousand air-conditioners drone. Tomatoes lunge into season in satiny blaring reds. Nobody turns on their oven if they can help it. Summer seems like it will go on forever, and then it doesn’t. August is the meds wearing off, the bottom of the afternoon, the text and the email you let go unanswered. It feels like waiting for something to happen, and it feels like everything that was going to happen already has.
I don’t know why The Counting Crows named this album what they named it, but its name seems of a piece with the era in which it was a first a hit. We talk about the ‘90s, and music from the ‘90s, and other things like fashion and movies and malls and love and jeans and those minimalist one word name Gap perfumes and the early internet and nascent social media, as though it were a monolith. It isn’t, though, not really, even if it was the last era of large format broadcast media, the last time the radio mattered and everyone was listening to the same five songs on it all day. But mostly the decade was more diffuse than it was coherent, a soup of maximalism and minimalism, irony and sincerity, bad jeans and good jeans, Gap Grass and Mugler Angel, success and failure. Most eras are; very few things cohere and almost nothing can be swaddled into a single summary descriptive phrase.
One thing, however, that was perhaps endemic to this decade of slip dresses and supermodels and grunge bands and Oscar movies was the end of the world. Not the end of the world in the present tense— not like now when we wake up each morning grumblingly in media res with the apocalypse—but the end of the world in the near future, lurking the way September lurks around the corner from August. There was a sort of Sunday night feeling to the ‘90s, a sense of killing time in the waiting room. It was the moment before the thing happens, and the millennium appeared enormous as it drew up closer and closer into view.
In the first hours of the year 2000, every radio station was playing U2’s “New Years Day” at one in the morning. I had stayed awake, waiting for all the science fiction stuff to happen. I expected—logically, in the way you expect the toaster to make bread change color—the world to be transformed. None of knew what to do when that didn’t occur, but that’s a different story. The particular feeling of the ‘90s was about the long anxious wasteful moment before. It was like Sunday and it was like August. Here we are in the last month before the fall comes in, before the cold turns around and fills in the spaces we left open, before all the consequences arrive, after the party, hovering in the three am before the workday, the glee and the dread of having stayed up too late on a school night. It’s the end of the summer; it’s the end of the world. The whole thing of August, the lounge-y half-naked dinosaur-green nihilist do-nothing swamp of it, is everything after.
This album isn’t about me, and that’s what’s great about it. The beloved memory that listening to August and Everything After calls up for me is the memory of listening to August and Everything After. This is one place, at least, to which I can always return, one moment to which I can always go back, one experience that is not lost. My feelings about this album aren’t nostalgic at all, because I can get to it, and can get the same things from it, just as easily now as I could twenty years ago. Maybe that’s what a perfect album is: Something that means you can always go home again.
August floods and fades and shuffles in at the long end of history, in the dog days of the slow apocalypse, pulling the sun and the heat down toward the billboards that glitter up the edge of the skyline. I hit play and “Round Here” starts and it’s just the same as always, the door to the room and the room behind the door unchanged. I snuggle down into the familiar old-car smell of one perfect context-less song after the next, wasting time in the slow and nervous end of the day, on the way to whatever happens after August.
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When the “rain falls down” part starts in “Anna Begins”
A perfect essay for a perfect album. What's embarrassing for me is that I didn't even realize other people were embarrassed to like this album. Whoops, haha.