December is a time of year when we are barraged by festiveness and holiday spirit to the point where it can all become overbearingly cheery. This unrelenting glee flies in the face of the fact that there is no moratorium on sorrow or pain in December. Nor does it acknowledge the kind of reflection that accompanies the passing of one year into the next.
It’s a good thing then that songwriters like Adam Duritz of Counting Crows are around to keep us in balance with bruised beauties like “A Long December.” The song is a contemplative ballad from 1996’s Recovering The Satellites, the band’s second album, and it’s excellent evidence that very few writers do bittersweet with as much soul-searching honesty as Duritz.
He told Rolling Stone that the song was inspired by visits to a friend recovering from being hit by a car (hence the line “The smell of hospitals in winter.”) But Duritz also admitted that, despite the song’s somber tone set by piano and accordion, “A Long December” was his way of seeing his glass of eggnog as half full for a change. “It’s a song about looking back on your life and seeing changes happening,” he said, “and for once me, looking forward and thinking, ‘Ya know, things are gonna change for the better — ‘maybe this year will be better than the last.’”
“A Long December” see-saws from heartbroken to hopeful without seeming strained. Regrets pile up, as they tend to do at the end of the year, but they are counteracted by the sense of optimism that the changing calendar inevitably brings. So it is that “the feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters, but no pearls” is quickly replaced by a glimpse of “the way that light attaches to a girl.”
Even if the passage of time brings wisdom, that sometimes only means that you can understand all the things you’ve done wrong. Duritz sings, “I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself/To hold on to these moments as they pass.” Yet the narrative concludes on a tentative note of positivity when the narrator begins to see his West Coast surroundings not just as the setting for his daily drudgery but as a place of beauty and wonder: “It’s been so long since I’ve seen the ocean . . . I guess I should.”
The song ends with Duritz chanting some “na-na-na” syllables that break free from the stateliness of the main melody and make it sound like the narrator might make it out of this unforgiving month all right. Maybe “A Long December” falls short of bringing tidings of comfort and joy, but it delivers a glimmer of hope for the new year. Sometimes it’s the best we can hope for, and sometimes it’s enough.
Photo Credit: Red Light Management