On April 7, Covid-19 took John Prine, who for decades had been the most common non-Dylan answer to the question, “who is the greatest living American songwriter?” Six days earlier, it took Adam Schlesinger, who may have been the most underrated American songwriter.
Not by me, you might protest. Perhaps you were in the smallish but zealous group of Fountains of Wayne fans who knew Schlesinger to be both an ustaad of popcraft and an storyteller of Chekhovian sympathy; or in the even smaller group, comprised mainly of Schlesinger’s peers, who knew the full range of his work, from the bands Ivy and Tinted Windows to the musical Cry-Baby, the film Josie and the Pussycats and the acclaimed but obscure TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, for which Schlesinger wrote or co-wrote a scarcely credible 157 songs over four seasons. Many of those peers, we have learned this month, regarded Schlesinger in the way Hilaire Belloc did PG Wodehouse: as “the head of our profession”.
But to the public at large, Schlesinger was known, like Suzanne Vega, for two songs: That Thing You Do! (1996), sung by the fictional Tom Hanks-led Wonders in the film of the same name, and Stacy’s Mom (2003), Fountains of Wayne’s only hit. Both are charming and addictive pop songs, and they speak to Schlesinger’s wit, knack for hooks, and mastery of structure, but if they were all you knew, you might struggle to make sense of the intensity of the encomia that have followed his death.
Schlesinger’s relative obscurity was in part a function of timing: much of his work was in genres or styles that hadn’t been fashionable or widely popular in decades. It is an occupational hazard of writing catchy songs that musical subtlety and lyrical depth are often overlooked by listeners. But it was also, to an extent, self-chosen. He didn’t sing lead in any of his bands, and was compelled by the work itself rather than by stardom. Part of his genius was the ability to write specifically to the timbre of someone else’s voice, most notably Chris Collingwood in Fountains of Wayne.
Until this month, I was a Fountains of Wayne admirer who vaguely knew that Schlesinger had done other things. In the weeks since his death I’ve discovered how many other things there were, and that, as Slate’s Carl Wilson puts it, “Schlesinger’s name on a project almost guaranteed musical pleasures and accomplishments that went far beyond its surface promise.” (For an overview of Schlesinger’s career, and an unimprovable playlist that highlights the range and quality of his output, check out Wilson’s piece.)
As a reviewer for my college newspaper, I had been assigned Tinted Windows’ first – and only – album, and dismissed it with that combination of ignorance and superciliousness in which 19-year old males specialise. A decade later I found that I could still hum every track.
But I keep going back to Fountains of Wayne, and to one song in particular: 2003’s All Kinds of Time.
By Schlesinger’s standards, it isn’t especially catchy (this is the man who wrote Pretend to Be Nice from Josie and the Pussycats) or pretty (I-95, Hey Julie). It employs all the tricks that Robbie Fulks lovingly parodied in his song Fountains of Wayne Hotline: a “broken-down” verse followed by a “radical dynamic shift”. Musically, you could swiftly categorise it as a pleasing but bland track that belongs on the soundtrack of an early-2000s teen soap (sure enough, it featured on an early episode of One Tree Hill).
But this is Adam Schlesinger, so it’s worth tuning into the words. He wrote all kinds of songs, but, like the filmmaker Richard Linklater, one of his principal subjects was time, and how it can be compressed or expanded within the confines of a highly structured pop song. So many of his songs begin with a moment: someone stuck in traffic on their commute (Sick Day, Little Red Light), lovers separated by nine hours of highway (I-95) or waiting at Lost and Found for luggage that hasn’t arrived (Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim). Narratively, they move forward hardly, or not at all, but they expand horizontally, so that in three or four minutes we feel like we know these people and where they’re headed.
In Linklater’s film Before Sunset, a novelist dreams of writing a novel that takes place “within the space of a pop song…three or four minutes long.” At his best, Schlesinger achieved the inverse; a pop song that functioned like a novel.
The spark for All Kinds of Time was sports cliche. When an American football quarterback has a second or two more than usual to make his pass, the commentator will often say that he has “all kinds of time”.
Schlesinger found the phrase bizarre; how could a few seconds at most be all kinds of time? He decided to take the phrase literally: to begin with the quarterback about to receive the football, and to stretch those few seconds into a four-minute song that gives us a life, and a world. Also on his mind were the dramatic highlight reels produced by NFL Films, with super-slo-mo footage of quarterbacks about to pass. Schlesinger was thrilled when NFL Films used All Kinds of Time for a commercial that embodied every cliche that had provoked it.
After receiving the “snap”, our young quarterback pauses, steps back. He’s “under attack”, but feels only “a strange inner peace”. Then Schlesinger shows us what he means by taking “all kinds of time” literally. Our hero has time enough not only to make his pass, but to think along the way of his mother, his “bride-to-be”, and his father and his younger brothers, “gathered around a widescreen TV.”
That slightly unusual phrase, “bride-to-be”, is a piece of quiet Schlesingerian magic. It generates the perfectly judged rhyme, with “widescreen TV”, that gives the bridge its shape; and, unlike “fiancée”, which connotes a current status, “bride-to-be” places the characters, and the listener, in the future. This is a song about how the future marks the present; the quarterback’s body shape already revealing the future trajectory of the ball, and life, for the young and lucky, being something that is to be looked forward to.
Many Schlesinger songs earn their pathos through irony; their protagonists’ declarations of optimism are moving because we’re certain things won’t work out for them. “You know I’m gonna get my shit together / ‘Cause I can’t live like this forever,” cries the alcoholic narrator of Bright Future in Sales; but we know the exact opposite. All Kinds of Time, at least on the surface, works quite differently. The “young quarterback” isn’t wrong to feel secure; he is in what athletes call “the zone”, and we never doubt that he is going to make his pass, “just as he planned”. We don’t doubt, either, that his bride-to-be will soon be his bride.
But the pathos is still there, just in different form. Depending on your age and circumstances, “all kinds of time” is at best a privilege and at worst a delusion, and one can slide into the other with horrifying ease. John Prine was a 73-year old cancer survivor, 50 years removed from writing Sam Stone, Souvenirs and Angel of Montgomery. He still wrote songs as sharp and endearing as anybody’s, but his most recent album, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness, was the work of a wise greybeard: “When youre grandkids are all grown / And they put you in a home / And eternity is approaching fast / Yeah, you’re half out of your head / And you probably pissed the bed / And you can’t see a thing / To save your ass.”
Adam Schlesinger was 52, healthy, with two teenage daughters, and nowhere near ready to look backwards. On an optimistic day, he might have had every reason to think that he had “all kinds of time”. The music is in some ways the least of what the world has been cheated of; it’s unlikely that he could go a month without writing a good song, but he had already written enough for several careers. For those who loved his music, and the many more who come to love it, this may prove the saddest song he ever wrote.
Read the other articles in The Art of Solitude series here.