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The Crushingly Earnest Power Pop of Adam Schlesinger

The Fountains of Wayne cofounder and “That Thing You Do!” songwriter died Wednesday of complications from the coronavirus

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“All Kinds of Time,” one of the seemingly hundreds of objectively perfect songs written or cowritten by Adam Schlesinger, is the best and rarest sort of rock ‘n’ roll alchemy: It somehow transforms its titular cheeseball football-announcer cliché into a crushingly beautiful celebration of youthful immortality, and in so doing achieves a sort of immortality itself. Rarest is underselling it, really: No way any other songwriter in history has ever managed to do that specific thing before. Schlesinger died Wednesday, at 52, of complications from the coronavirus. This is the first song of his to put on repeat for hours.

It is a power ballad; it starts with plaintive acoustic guitar and slowly gathers sonic and narrative momentum from there. It appears on 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers, the third album from New York City power-pop savants Fountains of Wayne, a jocular quartet led by Schlesinger and his cowriter and lead singer, Chris Collingwood. It is tremendously clever but firmly not a condescending joke. “All Kinds of Time” is, after all, about exactly what the title cliché would suggest it’s about: “The young quarterback / Waits for the snap / When suddenly it all starts to make sense,” Collingwood croons, as if this is the most profound and beautiful image in the world, and of course suddenly it is. The final verse goes like this:

He looks to the left
He looks to the right
And there in a golden ray of light
Is his open man
Just like he planned
The whole world is his tonight

The song and the pass both hang in the air, swooning and expectant, and then, boom: a first-kiss-on-a-junior-high-dance-floor explosion of electric arena-rock ecstasy. Perfect.

“For better or worse, my songs aren’t usually that abstract,” Schlesinger wrote in The New York Times in 2013. “Maybe it’s because I never did enough drugs. But I tend to write songs that are about something pretty specific.” As for this song specifically:

It was admittedly sort of a hokey idea on paper, but I remembered a wistful Paul Simon baseball song called “Night Game,” which is not really about sports at all, and I strove for a bit of that feeling. I worked on the lyrics to my idea first, and then tried to set it to music that implied slow motion. When the NFL later licensed this song for a spot featuring classic slow-motion footage of quarterbacks, I could not have been happier, because I felt like that idea must have come across.

On Fountains of Wayne records, the ideas always came across, no matter how outlandish, or silly, or crushingly earnest, or preferably all of the above. Their self-titled 1996 debut, which kicks off with the instant-classic crunchy earworm “Radiation Vibe,” emerged into an alt-rock era that could deal severely with guys who tried to be too smart, too funny, too flagrantly suburban, too sympathetic to the losers of the world. “He’s got his arm around every man’s dream,” goes the chorus to a goofy raver called “Leave the Biker,” the guitar distortion as pristine as the characterization. “Crumbs in his beard from the Seafood Special.” The catchiest song on the album might be the one called “Please Don’t Rock Me Tonight.”

Speaking of flagrantly suburban, the track on 1999’s Utopia Parkway I am most fond of is the gentle piano ditty “Prom Theme,” which as usual is exactly what it says it is, and whose final verse is a triumph of another kind:

Here we are at last
We’re running out of gas
The air is getting thick
The girls are feeling sick
We’ll pass out on the beach
Our keys just out of reach
And soon we’ll say goodbye
Then we’ll work until we die

This is all pretty close to objectively hilarious, but the song also takes its characters’ wants and needs and joys and pains seriously: A Schlesinger production tends to get better the deeper it digs, the more mundane its details first appear to be. The grandeur of “All Kinds of Time” would absolutely dominate even the greatest album by a lesser band, but Welcome Interstate Managers also has Fountains of Wayne’s biggest and horniest hit, “Stacy’s Mom,” which sounds like 12 of your personal favorite Cars songs blaring simultaneously, and is followed immediately by the band’s saddest-ever song, “Hackensack,” a bruisingly detail-packed study of a lovelorn loser pining for a beautiful classmate who fled Hackensack for Hollywood stardom and will never be back. You can probably think of a few rock ‘n’ roll greats who’ve specialized in evoking both the agony and the ecstasy of New Jersey. Schlesinger stands among them.

Dip anywhere into the band’s catalog (their final album was 2011’s extra-wistful Sky Full of Holes) and you’ll plunge into a master-songwriter rabbit hole. Just now I was listening to “Someone to Love,” the leadoff track to their 2007 album Traffic and Weather, a thorny but of course relentlessly hooky New Wave jam about two lonesome Brooklynites—Seth Shapiro and Beth McKenzie, because characters in Fountains of Wayne songs often get full names and always get Tolstoyan backstories—destined to meet cute and fall for each other. And midway through the not-quite-four-minute song, I got so invested in that story line I Googled the lyrics because I wanted to see how it ended. Schlesinger specialized in songs dense and vivid enough that they were worth spoiling.

Or maybe you know him for the songs he wrote for those movies you love, songs so central to the narrative and the drama and the credibility that those movies literally would not exist otherwise. He wrote the exquisite ’60s one-hit-wonder jam that gave Tom Hanks’s 1996 directorial debut That Thing You Do! its title; for the 2007 Drew Barrymore–Hugh Grant romcom Music and& Lyrics, he wrote the tender ballad “Way Back Into Love” o’er which that romance, and much of the movie’s plot, transpires. Here he is onstage, singing one of the songs he wrote for the 2001 remake of Josie and the Pussycats.

Outside of Fountains of Wayne, in the ’90s Schlesinger cofounded the swankier and stormier pop band Ivy, and in 2009 he joined the delirious power-pop supergroup Tinted Windows alongside Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha, Hanson’s Taylor Hanson, and Cheap Trick’s Bun E. Carlos, because why the hell not. More recently, he wrote or cowrote 157 songs for the extremely beloved CW comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, of which my personal favorite is “I Gave You a UTI,” though based on the Schlesinger “egobituary” show cocreator Aline Brosh McKenna posted to Twitter Wednesday night, I am rapidly warming toward “What It’ll Be?.”

Which as you can see is another piano ballad, and another melancholy tribute to a down-on-their-luck nobody who becomes, via Schlesinger’s careful and workmanlike but also utterly magical attention, a somebody.

I know this town like the back of my hand
But I’m not such a fan of the back of my hand
’Cause if you look real close at those little hairs and veins
You’re like, “Hands are sorta gross”
It’s hard to explain

It is easy to explain what makes this ridiculous, but much harder to get at what also makes it transcendent. It’s just another perfect song he wrote—one of definitely hundreds.