Photo: Paul Erik / Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger’s Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

“I know this girl named Denise,” Fountains of Wayne sang over spiky, rapid-strummed electric guitar clicks, “She makes me weak at the knees / She drives a lavender Lexus / She lives in Queens / But her dad lives in Texas.”

Then the fuzz-rock fully kicks in, and thus starts “Denise”, one of the many perfect power-pop confections that Adam Schlesinger wrote in his band Fountains of Wayne. He had a career that stretched into film and television, that was built on novelty hits, songwriter-for-hire gigs, and some lyrics that bordered on downright goofy. Everyone respected Adam Schlesinger’s adherence to his craft. Pop music could be serious and emotional, but it could also be disposable in the most playful of ways, and time after time, he developed earworms that didn’t just get stuck in your head for days, no, he wrote the kind of songs you could hum from memory two decades after you first heard it.

“Denise” was the first song I ever heard from Fountains of Wayne, the lead single from their sophomore album Utopia Parkway. That song was released on 6 April 1999. Almost 21 years later to the day, Schlesinger would pass away at age 52 due to complications from COVID-19.

Utopia Parkway is a stellar guitar-pop record in a career that was full of minor-pop masterpieces. While Fountains of Wayne’s self-titled debut endeared them to the mid-’90s college rock crowd with classics like “Radiation Vibe” and “Sink to the Bottom”, Utopia Parkway is where you could hear Schlesinger and his bandmate Chris Collingwood stretch the sonic boundaries of their craft. You hear it in the laid-back acoustic slide of “Hat & Feet”, the deliberately psychedelic pastiche “Go, Hippie”, and the prom-rock stylings of “Amity Gardens” (and the even more obvious slow dance of “Prom Theme”).

Utopia Parkway was an album about being a youth traversing the boredom of low-key adventures of living in the suburbs, and it incidentally spoke in droves to the very suburban kids it was depicting. Critics ate it up, but the album wasn’t a hit in the way Atlantic Records wanted, and they were dropped shortly after. Yet the truth is that Schlesinger seemed to enjoy dancing on the outskirts of the mainstream, sometimes entering it for a spell but never letting that kind of broad success mess with his distinct and ever-quirky songwriting instincts. He could’ve easily pumped out a pure product for the radio playlist machines, but he was too smart and frankly too weird of a songwriter ever to befall such a fate. Plus, it was clear he was having too much fun with his lifetime of collaborations.

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While no one is truly immune to the horrors of COVID-19, the loss of Schlesinger cuts too deep for words, largely because he hadn’t faded out into obscurity. He was working constantly putting out truly great work, with most of his latter-day notoriety tied to his collaborations with Rachel Bloom on her musical TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. He was no stranger to working in different media: his title track from the 1996 Tom Hanks-directed rock band movie That Thing You Do! was central to the film’s charm, a pitch-perfect pastiche of ’60s swingin’ sock hop vibes. The song was a minor hit on its own, and it ended up netting an Oscar nomination for Schlesinger; it may very well be the number people most identify with him — outside of Fountains of Wayne’s fluke Top 40 hit “Stacy’s Mom”, of course.

As goofy and sly as “Stacy’s Mom” is, the parent album it came from, 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers, ended up being a classic in its own right. Out on a new label and with Schlesinger and Collingwood’s artistic vision as crisp as ever, Welcome Interstate Managers pondered bigger themes outside of suburban sprawl. Themes including questioning the pointlessness of climbing the corporate ladder (the smashing power-pop of “Bright Future in Sales”) and pining for the one that got away and went on to be a famous star (the crippling lament “Hackensack”, which later went on, somewhat surprisingly, to be covered by Katy Perry for her MTV Unplugged special).

As is always the case with Schlesinger, the minor details were the most important, from tiny pre-chorus synth plinks to couplets that seem simple on their surface but cut to deeper emotional centers than some entire albums do. There’s such absolute defeat in the line, “I used to work in a record store / Now I work for my dad.” As was always the case with Schlesinger, casual fans dismissed his craft as nerdy caricature, but those who stuck around saw the full-depth of his vision.

“Having a hit, you worry that you’ll become a bunch of arrogant assholes, but it was good that it didn’t happen until eight years into the band’s life. We could actually enjoy it while also knowing that it won’t last,” Schlesinger told PopMatters back in 2007. “Being a one-hit-wonder is a good thing. That one song gets heard by everyone. But then it allows you to have an artistic life for the people who are paying attention to all of your music.”

Throughout his career, people would always pay attention to Schlesinger’s music, even on projects which would normally get relegated to the budget bins of history. His punk-pop contribution to the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack in 2001? It was the best thing on there (“Pretend to Be Nice”). Do you have a new teen rock band that needs an actual identity? Call up Schlesinger to write their best song for them — the Click Five’s hooky “Just the Girl”, which has the most glorious cringe line of all time: “She laughs at my dreams / But I dream about her laughter.”

Need new songs for the Monkees? Need songs for the Tony Awards? Need songs for the Stephen Colbert Christmas Special or the Broadway musical version of the John Waters film Cry-Baby? Schlesinger rose to the occasion time and time and time again. He produced albums for his friends, played guitars and piano on projects for his buddy James Iha, and still found time to run a whole separate band, Ivy, in the midst of all of this. As much as he was a pop songwriting machine, he was still, by all accounts, one of the nicest guys you could ever work with.

“I think that every artist,” Schlesinger told PopMatters in 2010, “goes through a thing where if there are fans that love one of your records it’s almost like they don’t want to hear another one on some level because it can never mean to them what that older one does. That’s something that everybody fights with, you know? I mean, you try to do something each time that stands on its own, but there’s something … certain records hit people at a certain time in their lives that just means so much to them because of the time when they got into it. No matter what you do, you’re never going to be able to recreate that experience for them. But then there are other people that just kind of come along for the ride, and whatever you’re doing, they want to check it out, and they come at it with an open mind.”

As some people have learned in scanning the various obituaries published in the wake of Schlesinger’s passing, he wasn’t responsible for just one single beloved cultural artifact, but several. People are surprised upon learning the projects he contributed to, and Schlesinger seemed to like it that way, catching people with open minds when they seem to expect it least. He had been working on his craft for decades, but it still felt like he had several more years in him — and a countless number of incredible songs.

On Fountains of Wayne’s 2007 full-length Traffic and Weather, there’s a striking acoustic number called “I-95”. He describes the knick-knacks found in a trucker gas station and how meaningless they are before taking his car out to the open road under cover of night. “Hip-hop stations are fading in and out / All I’m receiving now is a kick drum mixed with static / Constellations are blinking in the sky / The road is open wide, it feels so cinematic.” We may never know what destination he was heading. Still, as we try and get back to obtaining a sense of normalcy of our own lives, Adam Schlesinger’s music will do what it always does and serve as a dynamite soundtrack for every important moment — just as he designed it to be.

Rest in peace, Adam.