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Nobody will ever have a career like Adam Schlesinger’s again

Adam Schlesinger

Adam Schlesinger Associated Press

When I’d heard that Adam Schlesinger died at 52 yesterday of complications from COVID-19, I decided to listen to my least favorite Fountains of Wayne album.

Not their scattershot but effective compilation of odds and ends Out-of-State Plates—crafty guys like Schlesinger and his songwriting partner Chris Collingwood are often captured flatteringly in their most offhand moments. No, after listening to some of my personal favorites to yank my heart in all the familiar ways, I cued up the band’s final album, Sky Full of Holes, because I wanted to experience Schlesinger’s pop mastery undiluted by my own nostalgia, to hear what his songs sounded likewhen I didn’t already know how I’d feel when I heard them.

Of course, there’s no way of really doing that with Fountains of Wayne. Like all songwriting greats, Schlesinger was a master manipulator—he always knew how a song would make you feel. But he also knew that knowing that was the easy part. “So many power pop guys are just formalists,” sometime CP contributor Brad Shoup tweeted yesterday. “Not Adam.” And from his brilliant soundtrack work (That Thing You Do!, Josie and the Pussycats, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) to the urbane sophisti-pop of Ivy to his artistic home base with FOW, that was the essence of Schlesinger’s gift. Power pop routinely relies on the efficiency and precision with which a trick is turned, with satisfying hermetically sealed retro desires. But while Schlesinger knew how a melodic phrase or a lyric set up certain expectations, he also knew how to frustrate, complicate, or expand them.

A rhyme does so much in a Fountains of Wayne song. Sure there are laughs—the newly tattooed kid wondering “Will you stop pretending, I've never been born/Now I look a little more like that guy from Korn?” But even when the lyrics aren’t jokes, the word that completes a couplet often does the work of a punch line, recontextualizing and clarifying what came before it. In “Someone to Love,” “Beth McKenzie got the job of her dreams” is immediately deflated by the mundanity of “retouching photos for a magazine” and then “aimed at teens.” The first rhyme is Wile E. Coyote hitting his head on every branch after he falls off a cliff; the second is the rock that lands on his head after he hits bottom.

Musically, Schlesinger could make a virtue of excess: “Pretend to Be Nice,” from the Josie soundtrack, has three great choruses in a row. But he was never a showoff. The musical techniques that were lovingly parodied by alt-country wiseass Robbie Fulks on “Fountains of Wayne Hotline,” where struggling songwriters call in for advice to doctor up their limp compositions, came from a place that celebrated the effect on the listener rather than the brilliance of the musicians causing it. Fountains of Wayne were students of that effect. Rockers covering pop hits often bristle with condescension, but on their cover of “...Baby One More Time,” you can hear that Schlesinger and Collingwood don’t just respect its craft, but crave its power, its mass appeal. They’re looking for pop’s secrets.

That search began with Fountains of Wayne’s self-titled debut, a collection that wouldn’t have made much commercial sense before 1996, when that lull between grunge and nu-metal made space for goofier, wimpier strains of guitar-pop on the radio. Though songs like “Radiation Vibe” (No. 14 on the Billboard Alt chart!) worked off the same dynamic shifts that alternative radio had reduced to a formula, they were deployed in a manner both craftier and more modest. Lyrically, FOW were still stuck at the is-she-really-going-out-with-him stage of their development, embodying a certain type of smart guy who chafes with unlaid frustration against the autonomy of female desire, and Collingwood’s maturing-nerd voice was perfect for the role.

But even so FOW were nicer and funnier than most long-suffering betas, and there was an interest in women’s thoughts and lives that verged on genuine empathy. “Sick Day,” which follows a secretary’s mundane commute from Jersey to a Manhattan office job, pointed toward their future. They would learn to craft lived-in vignettes, first on Utopia Parkway (these guys were so ahead of the curve they were singing about frickin’ Queens when Brooklyn was still barely becoming cool) and then their commercial breakthrough, Welcome Interstate Managers.

On that best-seller, FOW flaunt their developed narrative chops immediately with “Mexican Wine.” In its first two verses, a cremated corpse is repackaged as baby lotion and a woman croaks when she forgets her heart pills; then we learn this is all being related by a retired stoner pilot who kicks back and takes another swig in the sunshine. Is this Alanis’s “Ironic” rewritten as a satire on suburban complacency, or just the story of a guy recognizing his good fortune? FOW’s ironies were so gentle it was hard to tell. Their characters were often delusional charmers—the kid who thinks he’ll bang “Stacy’s Mom,” the desperate go-getter with a “Bright Future in Sales”—but Schlesinger and Collingwood were too kind to pull the rug out from underneath them.

The lyrics would get darker: I now recognize the masterful narrative economy and wit of the two opening tracks on Sky Full of Holes, “The Summer Place” and “Richie and Reuben,” both of which go for the throat. But Schlesinger was at his best taking an elegiac tone for a relatively privileged suburban life that was already ebbing two decades ago. The spoiled mid-Atlantic teens of “Fire Island” imagining they’re in American Pie 7 (“All the kids from school/Will be naked in the pool”) come off as sweethearts. And the tossed-off “Laser Show,” about high school burnouts zonking out at the Hayden Planetarium (rhymes with “Bridgeport, Westport, Darien”) features one of my favorite quatrains: “We're gonna sit back, relax, watch the stars/James and Jason, Kirk and Lars/We're gonna make our way across the galaxy/And then we'll head home back on the L.I.E.”

Fountains of Wayne mapped out an area of the northeast corridor that Springsteen was too idealist and Billy Joel too cranky to depict—or maybe that both were just too old to have fully experienced. There's really no better song about how far away from the rest of the universe New Jersey can feel than “Hackensack.” It hovers with the weightlessness that comes from living in a placeless place, the realization that you don’t have a life story, you’ve just been present for an accrued series of minor events. But Schlesinger understood that such a realization was indeed a story, and deserved to be told as much as anyone’s.

So really, Schlesinger had been auditioning his whole life for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the Rachel Bloom musical sitcom about a neurotic NYC lawyer who hies off to a nondescript California exburb. Who better to capture the mixed emotions that world of office parks and strip malls roused in its inhabitants, without ever stooping to anything as smug as ironic appreciation?

Obits have typically highlighted the range of projects Schlesinger worked on, most too lucrative to call side hustles. He was a man of his generation—young enough to be born into the initial decline of American prosperity but old enough to imagine he could carve a creative space for himself in the wreckage. And he did: There was still enough give in capitalism that commercial demands could be taken not as concessions but conventions that an artist could adapt to. Part of what we’re mourning with Schlesinger’s death is the end of an age where a bill-paying but personally satisfying music career remained possible.

That’s just one of the many ways of life we’ll be saying goodbye to this year. We’re just now witnessing the first crop of casualties—the virus also claimed jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis and art-disco singer Cristina Monet yesterday, and there will be more today, and then tomorrow. This is an age that demands crueler ironies than Schlesinger typically spun. But if for a few moments today you accidentally find yourself not absolutely miserable, don’t hate yourself. Like the guy sang, "The sun still shines in the summertime."