Sometimes a song can perfectly represent what is right and wrong with a given band. The strengths and weaknesses of the given song--and its ultimate successes and failures--serve as an accurate case study of the merits of the group itself. And these days, whenever I hear "Anna Begins" by the Counting Crows, I can't help but remember what made them so great in 1995 and what has made them so frequently disappointing since.
The song, written in the key of G major, begins with the minor two (A minor). This, combined with the hard-struck and syncopated backbeat, gives the song an immediately unstable feel. We know, as the listener, that something is definitely off before Duritz even opens with "My friend assures me, 'It's all or nothing'/I am not worried." Given that there's nothing "assuring" about that statement, and the subsequent repetition of the phrase "I am not worried," we get the growing sense that our narrator is, in fact, very worried about the status of this relationship. As the "not worried" refrain changes through the second verse, wavering, rising in pitch, we realize that this repeated mantra is an exercise in self-persuasion. Our speaker isn't telling us that he's not worried; he's telling himself.
One particularly rewarding point of vocal phrasing comes from Duritz in the second verse, as Anna mutters, "You're changing." When he replies, "we're always changing," he not only varies his delivery of the verse's melody for the first time, but segues into the prechorus, a marked musical change from the first and second verse.
Which brings us to the pre-chorus, which shifts us to the relative minor of our key, E minor. Again, an auspicious tone is set as the speaker slowly lets out his own inner monologue: "It does not bother me to say this isn't love." This section ends with the suspension of the major fifth, hanging on D, unresolved, and leads right back to the A minor of another verse.
In the following verse, the speaker's emotional conflict (he knows the relationship should end, but he can't bring himself to end it) is becoming more explicit and easily audible. Not only does Duritz now sing, "You try to tell yourself the things you try to tell yourself," referencing his own lines in the first two verses, but the band's arrangement is slowly gathering steam, building beautifully to reflect the narrator's growing emotional turmoil.
An abbreviated pre-chorus follows. This time, Anna's worries are voiced. But when the D from before comes around, the song finally resolves it by starting the chorus with the home chord of G major. The speaker's presence has, in a sense, eased her mind and stabilized the song's structure. But, as he thinks to himself, "I'm not ready for this sort of thing," we know we're in for another musical shift.
Verse three brings us right back to the A minor and the subsequent conflict within the speaker's mind. Now the "not gonna break, and I'm not gonna worry about it" mantra has grown more imperative. Another verse introduces a great image: the speaker imagines his relationship to Anna as that of a butterfly catcher: "Snap her up in a butterfly net/pin her down to a photograph album." A brief snapshot of the type of lyricist Duritz can be. "I've done this sort of thing before" leads us into another pre-chorus, as our speaker gets his nerve up for the impending break-up.
But as he "starts to think about the consequences," we still hang in the musical uncertainty of the pre-chorus, waiting for the resolution of that ending D again. This time, the chorus settles triumphantly on the home chord of G major, only reflecting the speaker's newfound stability: "Her kindness falls like rain...and Anna begins to change my mind." Even the whimsy of "every time she sneezes I believe it's love" is an excusable illustration of the nature of this relationship. As the three consecutive choruses build the music and the melody rises higher, the speaker elevates himself above the current situation and reaches a new resolution, already removed from this relationship. The background harmonies of "rain falls down" beautifully echo the image of her kindness ("her kindness falls like rain/it washes me away") and foreshadow a somewhat unhappy ending for Anna herself. Of course, the entire background quickly vanishes as Duritz sings, "she disappears."
Here, the concluding line "I'm not ready for this sort of thing" should follow the chord progression of the chorus (G, C, E minor, D), but instead substitues an A minor for the E minor, recalling the song's opening cadence and briefly revisiting that place of emotional turmoil. The song still ends on the home key of G which, coupled with the lyric, suggest an ambivalent ending: a sad ending, but a new beginning.
With truly great musical economy, the Counting Crows tell a multi-dimensional story and tell it accurately, interestingly, and beautifully. The facility of the band with this particular song--the choice to make the verses syncopated, the superb musical build throughout the prechoruses and final chorus--shows one of the reasons the Counting Crows have been a good band for such a long time; they are expert musicians, and thoughtful composers. And Duritz' awareness of vocal phrasing and flashes of lyrical brilliance are what has made him a singer-to-watch for over ten years now.
But the problem is this: in the wrong hands, success with "Anna Begins" begets failure with many, many, many more sequels. While the repetition and confessional mood of this song's lyric is justified by its musical elements and a carefully judged "inner monologue," Duritz has often adopted this incontinet style of lyric-writing since. The result is a catalogue of songs with disjointed, diary-style, borderline-embarrassing lyrics ("I Wish I Was a Girl," "Time and Time Again," "Colorblind," etc.) that take the style of "Anna Begins" but leave its substance. To make up for these more sadly ambitious tunes, they've gotten adept at cranking out uber-accessible, palatable, disposable pop-rock cheese nuggets like "American Girls," "Accidentally in Love," and "New Frontier." So, the listener is caught between a rock and a way-too-soft place, all the while listening eagerly for the next tune out, because of the undeniable potential that "Anna Begins," "Round Here," and others showed so long ago.
This is not to say that the Crows haven't written great songs since "Anna Begins." They're averaging about one an album ("Round Here," "Anna Begins," "Long December," "St. Robinson and His Cadillac Dream," "Up All Night"). And, because the band is so good and Duritz is so clearly on top of pop craft, they're imminently listenable. But I think that one of the reasons it's decidedly "uncool" to like the Counting Crows is because of the dozens of "Anna Begins" they've written since they got it right the first time. Ultimately, a great song left a bad impression because of its influence.
The Crows drop a new album this fall. I am not worried. I am not overly concerned.