Few trends scream “nineties” more loudly than the “rebellion against fame” album. Nirvana made In Utero. Pearl Jam made Vitalogy. R.E.M. made Monster. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a rock band ever becoming famous enough in the mainstream to then justify the creation of a “rebellion against fame” album. For awhile there, though, making this type of album—usually a louder, more abrasive follow-up to a cleaner, more tasteful, massively successful predecessor—was a rock ‘n’ roll rite of passage. Few bands ever steered into the skid quite as much as Counting Crows did on Recovering the Satellites.
It’s difficult, from the vantage point of 2021’s pop music status quo, to describe how absolutely massive Counting Crows were in the mid-90s. The band’s debut, 1993’s August & Everything After, is certified seven-times platinum in the United States and has sold well north of 10 million copies worldwide. The flagship single, “Mr. Jones,” made it to number 2 on the Billboard Mainstream Top 40 chart. Ironically, “Mr. Jones” was a song about wanting to be famous; to be “big, big stars.” “When I look at the television I wanna see me/Staring right back at me,” frontman Adam Duritz sang in the song.
Be careful what you wish for, Adam.
Recovering the Satellites arrived three years after August, and by then Duritz was singing a different tune. “I was out on the radio, starting to change/Somewhere out in America, it’s starting to rain/Could you tell me the things you remember about me?/And have you seen me lately?” Those lines come from a mid-set rocker called “Have You Seen Me Lately,” a song about losing yourself once you get that “Mr. Jones” dream. Duritz described the song in an interview as being about “dealing with the relationships with people in the wake of [fame], how I felt about knowing whether they were real or not real, and my perceptions of my social life having exploded out across the radio.” On record, you could almost make the mistake of thinking that Duritz is just fine with losing himself, so lively is the riff-heavy arrangement of the song. But just like Counting Crows have taken pleasure in stripping “Mr. Jones” down into a melancholy acoustic version that lays bare all the doubts and insecurities lurking in the lyrics, there’s a stripped-down take of “Have You Seen Me Lately” from VH1 Storytellers that pulls out all the haunting beauty of the lyrics. “You got a piece of me,” Duritz sings in the first verse, “But it’s just a little piece of me/And I don’t need anyone/And these days, I feel like I’m fading away.” Later, he sounds like he does need someone: “You know, I thought that someone would notice/I thought somebody would say something if I was missing/Can’t you see me?” Here’s a guy who got his wish and could suddenly turn on the television and see himself “staring right back” at him. But somehow, he ends up feeling all the more invisible and all the more alone.
The funny thing is that there are songs on Recovering the Satellites that could have taken Counting Crows even further down the path of rootsy Americana fame that they’d started traversing with August & Everything After. The album’s third and final single, the propulsive mid-tempo rocker “Daylight Fading, sounds built for crackling across the radio waves in the eighth hour of a long road trip, as the sun starts setting on the horizon. “Goodnight Elisabeth,” a way-after-dark alt-country beauty, feels almost like a sequel to “Round Here”; it might just be about the same people, who stay up very, very late. And then there’s “Walkaways,” an agonizingly brief parting shot that leaves you wanting more at the very end of the record; just an acoustic guitar, Adam’s voice, and 16 bars of music, “Walkaways” somehow devastates just as thoroughly as Crows epics like “Raining in Baltimore” and “Miami” do. “Someday, I’m gonna stay,” Duritz sings… “But not today.” Goddamn.
Of course, Recovering the Satellites also had the song that would become arguably the most beloved Counting Crows single of all time. When I talk to fans of this band, no one can ever quite agree on which of the August & Everything After hits is the best, but almost everyone seems to concur about “A Long December” being a masterpiece. Tucked into the penultimate slot of Satellites – not a typical spot on a major label album for a big flagship single – “December” nevertheless became a top 10 hit and a songbook classic. It’s also an honorary holiday song, one that tends to crop up around New Year’s when everyone’s hoping for better days to come. Suffice to say that the line “Maybe this year will be better than the last” especially seemed to resonate at the tail end of 2020, when everyone was hoping that 2021 would be a fresh start.
The line in “A Long December” that always knocked me on my ass, though, isn’t the one everyone knows, but the one that Duritz has gone on record calling the best lyric he ever wrote. “And all at once you look across a crowded room/To see the way that light attaches to a girl,” he sings in the second verse. It’s a line that conveys romance and possibility, and the way that the entire course of your life can shift in the breath of a moment, in a single glance across a random room.
It’s also one of at least a dozen perfect lyrics to crop up over the course of Recovering the Satellites. For a lot of reasons, Adam Duritz was never appreciated for being the absolute master-level songwriter that he is. It could have been because of his earnestness and angst. It could have been because of his fame and his romantic dalliances with not one but two cast members of Friends. It could have been because of the mainstream popularity that got the Crows branded as “corporate rock.” It was probably a little bit because of the dreadlocks. But on the trio of albums that Counting Crows released in the ‘90s, I’ll submit that Duritz displayed a love of language and a grasp for capturing little snapshots of the human condition better than any other active songwriter. There’s something magical about the way “Recovering the Satellites” grapples with the theme of growing up and losing yourself, and about how easy it is to spend the rest of your life trying to find your back to who you are. There’s magic about the way “Angels of the Silences” finds Duritz doing battle with all the little nagging doubts and insecurities and lapses of faith we all feel, building them up until they seem like the corporeal forms of all the monsters your parents told you weren’t really hiding under your bed when you were a kid. There’s magic about how “Catapult” makes a breakup feel every bit as sudden and surprising and painful as the whiplash you get from a car accident. (All of this lyrical magic is helped, not hurt, by really, really loud guitars, which snarl and scream across most of this record like sonic manifestations of all Adam’s suffering.)
Recovering the Satellites was a hit record: In fact, it remains the only Counting Crows album to land at number one on the Billboard charts. It also, predictably, started a trend that the Crows and a lot of other bands of their ilk had to navigate in this era: That of each consecutive album selling less than the one before it. As a kid – a kid who gravitated to August & Everything After as one of the first pieces of rock music he ever really liked – I remember Satellites feeling alien at first. It was too loud, too angry, too abrasive, not pretty enough, not catchy enough. Eight years later, when I came back to the Counting Crows and did a catalog deep dive as a more educated, active, and engaged listener, this album was still the toughest sell of the four albums that constituted this band’s studio output at that time. August was more lush and tuneful and immediate. This Desert Life felt more welcoming, like convening with a family member or old friend. Hard Candy was slicker and catchier and easier to sing along to. Satellites had a tendency to win me over for stretches of tracks (the opening trio, of “Catapult, “Angels of the Silences,” and “Daylight Fading,” was always aces) only to lose me elsewhere. I found “Miller’s Angels,” for instance, to be almost disconcertingly sad, while tracks like “Another Horsedreamer’s Blues” and “Monkey” felt like curveballs that the band put on the record for the sake of throwing curveballs. I liked the album while also thinking it was scattershot and oddly stitched together—a patchwork of different moods and sounds and emotional ups and downs.
These days, Recovering the Satellites makes more sense to me. The great singer-songwriter Matt Nathanson once told me he loves records that “have great topography,” and Satellites is absolutely that. It’s a veritable relief map of human emotion, a record that will take you from thrilling euphoria to crushing desolation and back again in the space of just a few songs. It feels disjointed where other Counting Crows records feel smooth and seamless But that mosaic approach also feels intentional, like it was the only way Duritz could take all the mixed emotions that were rattling around his head and set them free for the whole world to hear. 20 years later, it remains the outlier in the band’s catalog – even though Duritz has called it his favorite Crows record, and even though one-half of 2008’s Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings was a direct attempt to recapture its sound and fury.
It also might be the most influential Counting Crows album. It’s certainly a template-setter for producer Gil Norton, one of the greatest rock producers of the past 50 years. Norton had made his name manning the boards for Pixies records, but his biggest claims to fame after 1996 (Foo Fighters’ The Colour and the Shape; Dashboard Confessional’s A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar; and Jimmy Eat World’s Futures) are records that carry a lot of the Recovering the Satellites DNA: big, crunchy rock songs packed with widescreen emotions and rendered with pristine, radio-friendly production. Perhaps it’s no surprise, in the company of those emo or emo-adjacent records, that Satellites feels like an honorary part of the emo canon. You might even hear flickers of it in modern emo classics, from the big, bruising emotion of The Hotelier’s Home, Like NoPlace Is There to the ambitious, genre-bending magnitude of Foxing’s Nearer My God. And then there’s the emo-adjacent Japandroids, who sound like they spawned directly from “Angels of the Silences.” These days, the best-case scenario for rock music like that is to end up in the realm of beloved cult classics. Recovering the Satellites actually is a bit of a cult classic in its own right; August & Everything After remains more well-known, but Satellites might be the album you’ll see crop up on more “favorite records” lists from music critics and rock fans.
The cult classic status makes it all the more surreal that, 25 years ago, Counting Crows somehow rode their anxieties, their reservations about fame, and their penchant for heart-on-the-sleeve rock songs all the way to the top of the charts.