My connection to Adam Schlesinger’s work is slight compared to others who followed him through every stop of a lengthy and varied career. Sure, I’ve long admired the technical splendor of “That Thing You Do” and how he managed to place a masterful pretender in the rafters beside the best legitimate pop concoctions of the 1960s. His work on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in collaboration with Rachel Bloom, Jack Dolgen, and Steven M. Gold (among others) is further evidence of a genius-level handle on pop craftsmanship and songwriting, never ceasing to surprise and delight with wit, charm, and lyrical smirks. But the thing I most associate him with is Fountains Of Wayne and, specifically, their 2003 breakout album Welcome Interstate Managers. Which was the first thing I jumped to when I heard that Schlesinger had passed away after being savaged by COVID-19.
Welcome Interstate Managers’ biggest and best-remembered hit is, of course, “Stacy’s Mom,” a power-pop force that allowed Fountains Of Wayne to plant a flag in our collective public consciousness in 2003. The song is sticky, uncomplicated, horny, and paired brilliantly with an even more horny music video that played into the appeal of a scantily clad Rachel Hunter and the 2000’s white-hot ‘80s nostalgia fixation. The word “perfect” comes to mind when thinking about that mix of song, media, and moment. But there are richer experiences and better demonstrations of both Schlesinger and co-writer/bandmate Chris Collingwood’s proficiency as lyricists and storytellers and the entire band’s musicianship on the album.
What stands out most about Welcome Interstate Managers is the diversity of the material. Nothing sounds like “Stacy’s Mom,” but none of the other tracks really sound like each other either. Instead, Schlesinger and Collingwood pull inspiration from Tom Petty, The Beatles, The Cars, The Beach Boys, Linda Rondstadt, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, U2, and even country music. The end result stands out as an interesting and evocative collection of songs that too many people shruggingly dismissed as the filler around a one-hit-wonder. Because we’ve always had more content than time to appropriately assess and appreciate it. (Until, quite probably, these last few weeks of social distancing and slowing down.)
There’s “Hackensack,” an exactly three minutes long shuffle about fixation and light in the dark of life that keeps a sad sack from North Jersey going while waiting on something that’ll never come. Close your eyes, listen, and you can see the movie play in your head. “Bright Future In Sales” is more muscular in its sound and disguised as a pep talk for a worker bee trying to buy into his own mock excitement over modest ambitions. “Hey Julie” is a sweet, spare, acoustic song about the grind of work and its toll on the lives we try to lead with the people we try to lead them with. (And it guts me everytime.) While “Fire Island” flashes back to more dreamy teenage misbehavior.
There are also songs on the album that reach ahead in time to connect to now, punching you squarely in the gut. “Valley Winter Song” may as well be on the soundtrack for the disaster movie that is 2020 as it sings about crafting a song during winter in isolation for someone longing for the sunlit summer. It opens with the words, “Hey Sweet Annie / Don’t take it so bad / You know the summer’s coming soon.” Oy. “All Kinds Of Time” talks about football while barely hiding revelations about the lie that youth affords us when we think we’ve got time enough to see the whole field in front of us. It’s a particularly cruel reminder of why this article is being written.
What Schlesinger and Collingwood delivered with Welcome Interstate Managers is a meditation on suburban purgatory and angst, creating mostly nameless characters whose struggles, frustrations, and desires felt like relatable slices of life. Gritting my teeth through mind-numbing employment in 2003, while floating between teen dreams and adult realities in New Jersey (two towns over from the store that inspired the band’s name), means I was the exact right audience for all of that. But listening now, there’s a timelessness that reveals itself. Though, the idea of timelessness is a bit under attack now.
As we think on and celebrate the greatness that Schlesinger put into this world before he so sadly and prematurely got taken out of it, it’s hard to not wonder if we should linger in this exercise of reflection on that simpler time, cherishing what might be a fleeting chance to take the time to grieve with specificity on someone who impacted us from afar. I don’t know if pop contemplation of life’s comparatively less serious yet foundational experiences can continue on or if everything is going to be epic and existential from here on out. For now, though, maybe it’s best to enjoy Schlesinger’s gift and hold on, a little longer, to the normality it projected. The one where small things felt big.