Song of the Day #379: ‘When I Dream of Michelangelo’ – Counting Crows

satnightsThe 6-year gap between Hard Candy and Counting Crows’ next album, Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, was the longest yet. And unfortunately the new material wasn’t quite worth the wait. Conceived as a split between hard songs (the Saturday nights) and soft (the Sunday mornings), the album wound up a bit too extreme on both sides of the spectrum.

Each half contains some strong material but each also contains songs simply not worthy of the band’s name. Opening track ‘1492’ is the one song in the Counting Crows’ catalog that borders on unlistenable… a blistering hard-rock tear that doesn’t relent for four minutes. The other five songs that make up the album’s first half are better but not better than average by Counting Crows standards.

The eight ‘Sunday Morning’ tracks are more successful though, again, I don’t find anything there that really stacks up against the best of the first four albums. Reading up on the album today, I learned that prior to the recording Duritz went through a mental breakdown that was extreme even by his standards. He believed he’d never make music again until slowly finding his way. Perhaps this album is a pretty good snapshot of where his head was at while making it.

One of the better songs on the album, ‘When I Dream of Michelangelo’ is a ‘Sunday Morning’ track about the desire to create art. As Duritz has explained it in concert he wrote this before he’d had much success and found himself dreaming about living the life of a great artist and in the process he was shunning people in his life.

I find the lyrics a little opaque but for one very powerful verse at the song’s center:

And I dream of Michelangelo when I’m lying in my bed
I see God upon the ceiling, I see angels overhead
And he seems so close as he reaches out his hand
But we are never quite as close as we are led to understand

So often messed-up artists provide cathartic release, or just pure listening pleasure, to millions of people. It must be validating to know your expression of pain can help others. Now I’m not sure exactly how seriously to take a drama queen like Duritz… after all, this guy has lived a pretty decadent life. He’s dated a treasure trove of starlets, including half the cast of Friends. I get the impression a lot of the heartache he explores through his songs is part of his toolkit, so to speak. Contrast that to, say, Elliott Smith, whose pain was so real it ended with a knife in his chest.

But I don’t hold that against him… not at all. Music and poetry are a perfect way to inflate and explode your inner demons. I look forward to hearing Duritz’s soul searching for years to come.

Well you know I don’t like you but you wanna be my friend
Well, there are bodies on the ceiling and they’re fluttering their wings
It’s ok I’m angry
But you’ll never understand
When you dream of Michelangelo
They hang above your hands

And I know that she is not my friend
And I know cause there she goes
Walking on my skin again

And I can’t see why you’d want to talk to me
When your vision of America is crystalline and clean
I want a white bread life
Just something ignorant and plain,
But from the walls of Michelangelo I’m dangling again

And I know that she is not my friend
And I know cause there she goes
Walking on my skin again and again

Saturn on a line
A sun afire on strings and wires
To spin above my head and make it right
But any time you like
You can catch a sight of angel eyes all emptiness and infinite

And I dream of Michelangelo when I’m lying in my bed
I see God upon the ceiling, I see angels overhead
And he seems so close as he reaches out his hand
But we are never quite as close as we are led to understand

And I know that she is not my friend
And I know cause there she goes
Walking on my skin again and again

4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #379: ‘When I Dream of Michelangelo’ – Counting Crows

  1. Amy says:

    I want to talk about this song and this album, but first I have to address your “real’ vs.”toolkit” versions of heartache. How can we know that Smith’s was any more or less “real” (or fake) than anyone else’s? It might just be that the ultimate finale for a drama queen IS a knife in the chest. Or a stroll into the river. Or a binge gone on so long it finishes you.

    I hardly think Smith’s suicide validates his pain. It’s much braver (and a lot more painful) to go to therapy, keep making music, keep trying to make connections (and it was only 1/3 of the Friends cast, unless Schwimmer has even more damning photos of the photographers working for TMZ).

    Okay… enough of that. I, too, initially found it difficult to warm up to the Saturday nights portion of this album and determined I was just too far gone from them in my own life to be able to appreciate what he was going for. The Sunday mornings I “got” right away and your SOTD was my immediate favorite. His lyrics certainly can be opaque. I was amused after Howard Stern raved on and on about the acoustic performace they did of “Round Here” in his studios, while admitting he had no idea what the song was about. And I think that’s one of their more accessible songs 🙂 This one I’ve listened to so many times without really ever trying to interpret it. I just love the way it sounds, and the way his voice hits each “And…” I just love it.

    Over time, and with an intention to give it a full and fair listen, I have come to appreciate some of the Saturday night songs. “Los Angeles,” which is such a favorite of Daniel’s that he included in on a compilation CD he made :), is one I particularly like. “And it’s a really good place to find yourself a taco.” 😉

  2. Clay says:

    Yeah, I like ‘Los Angeles’ too.

    I have no idea whose pain is real or not, but I get the impression that Duritz lives a pretty social and fun life, based on his blog posts and general demeanor and the way he was picking up girls like McDonald’s takeout after the concert in Boca, as Dana mentioned.

    Of course maybe all that stuff just masks some deep inner pain, in which case sign me up for some masking! 🙂

  3. Dana says:

    I am in line with both of your assessments on this album.

    While I understand the whole Saturday/Sunday concept, and it is interesting in theory, I think it just doesn’t work well in translation for an album. I think the better albums out there take the listener through ebbs and flows, with change ups in tempo and mood. Now, there may be some out there who want to rock out at all times, and others who want to always be mellow, but I suspect most of us “in the middle” prefer to hear a rocker or two, followed by a softer song. So, I guess what I am saying here is that this album as a whole may have left a better impression if the songs didn’t follow the Saturday/Sunday format. I suppose one way to find out is to just shuffle the album on your IPod, and see if you come away liking it more. I suspect that I would.

    As for the whole real vs. toolkit emotions issue, it always seemed to me that AD had a lighter side that Elliott Smith never showed. I don’t think Smith could have or would have ever written a song like American Girl or Accidentally in Love. I think that, as much as AD can bathe himself in sorrow or heartache, he is clearly quite capable of having a good time.

  4. Clay says:

    That’s a good idea… perhaps I’ll try my own sequence for the album. But I’ll leave ‘1492’ off!

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