The long, mournful trumpet-and-piano intro to “Palisades Park,” the atmospheric opening track on Counting Crows’ first new studio album in six years, suggests that we’re in for something different. In fact, though, much of the rest of Somewhere Under Wonderland should sound rather familiar to longtime fans. Containing nine tracks (a deluxe edition adds acoustic demo versions of two of them), the program does slip in a few minor musical surprises. Mostly, though, it relies on the same elements that characterized the group’s earlier efforts: Adam Duritz’s introspective lyrics about fame, love, and alienation; his impassioned, theatrical vocals; and the band’s distinctive brand of rock, which shifts suddenly and easily from uptempo power-pop to balladry and back.
Not everything here packs a punch. Many of Duritz’s latest lyrics strike me as being closer to pretentious than profound while some of the vocals seem more histrionic than evocative. More important, perhaps, the album simply isn’t as much fun to listen to as some of the earlier ones. There are, for example, no hooks or choruses as instantly addictive as the ones that drove classics like “Mr. Jones” and “Rain King.” Listening to the album, moreover, I get the sense that Duritz and his pals are pretty much in the same place they occupied when we last heard new original music from them in 2008.
On the other hand, that’s not such a bad place to be. And the new album is not without its high points. “Earthquake Driver,” for example, is a catchy rocker that had me coming back for more. And then there’s Duritz’s dirge-like “Possibility Days,” the last and best track, which benefits from deftly written lyrics and an arresting vocal.
So I am glad to have the album. But I also hope we won’t have to wait so long for the next one and that, when it arrives, it will reveal a band that has moved on a bit.