Even if you don’t know Schlesinger’s name, you’ve undoubtedly heard one of his songs. He wrote the title track for the Tom Hanks movie That Thing You Do, for instance, as well as the songs from Josie and the Pussycats.
He won three Emmys — two for songs he wrote for the Tony Awards, and one just last year for one of the many songs he wrote as the primary songwriter for The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And with the band Fountains of Wayne, he recorded the absurdly catchy 2003 earworm “Stacy’s Mom.” (Surely you’ve heard that one.)
Schlesinger was endlessly adaptable. Having started my career as a freelance writer, I think about the skill and versatility required to capture a publication’s “voice”; a piece for Vox should read differently from a piece for the Los Angeles Times, which should read differently from a piece for Rolling Stone. Schlesinger had that kind of talent with musical styles. He could disappear into Broadway show tunes, catchy ’60s pop, or even country music, and you’d simultaneously hear a song perfectly written in those styles that was still unmistakably his.
But I hope his work with Fountains of Wayne will become his longest-lasting legacy. Often written off as a one-hit wonder by people who only know “Stacy’s Mom,” the band has a deep and meaty discography worth exploring. The central duo of Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood — they wrote almost all of Fountains of Wayne’s songs together — captured the tension between the mundanity of everyday life and the soaring joy of the best rock and pop music. They got me through high school, through college, through my 20s, and I'm still listening to them in my 30s. They're one of just a few bands to have made that journey with me.
But if you’re going to listen to only one Fountains of Wayne album, listen to the band’s third release, 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers.
Fountains of Wayne was expert at capturing the ways pop music can make our boring lives feel more exciting
Perhaps no Fountains of Wayne lyric captures the band’s appeal more than the chorus from “Bright Future in Sales,” the second track on Welcome Interstate Managers.
I’m gonna get my shit together
’Cause I can’t live like this forever
You know I’ve come too far
And I don’t want to fail
I got a new computer
And a bright future in sales
A bright future in sales
The gap between the soaring power-pop melody underlying this lyric and its rather mundane subject — a new computer and a bright future in sales is what the singer is excited about? Really? — is at the center of many great Fountains of Wayne songs. That tension was what Schlesinger and Collingwood always zeroed in on, with incredible poignance, a snarky sense of humor, and surprising warmth, in song after song after song.
(It’s worth noting here that on most Fountains of Wayne albums, Schlesinger and Collingwood wrote first drafts of songs individually and brought them to the other members of the four-piece band, then arranged and perfected them with the rest of the group. As such, no one Fountains of Wayne song should be attributed to Schlesinger alone.)
Welcome Interstate Managers is the band’s bestselling, best-known album, and it almost didn’t happen. After the underperformance of their 1999 masterpiece Utopia Parkway (which I almost wrote about instead of this album), their label dropped them. Schlesinger footed the bill to record demo tracks for songs from what would become Welcome Interstate Managers, and the band used those demos to find a new label home with S-Curve Records. “Stacy’s Mom” was one of the album's singles, and its wild success — the song hit No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 — gave the band a hit record, Grammy nominations, and new prominence.
“Stacy’s Mom” still, as the kids say, slaps. But listen beyond it and you’ll hear an album full of perfect little musical jewels about young adults either anxious for their lives to begin or terrified that their lives have turned out to be defined by pointless day jobs and endless drudgery. The disconnect between the band’s big sound and their humdrum lyrics captures, for me, the ways we use music to add thrill to our lives. Who hasn’t tried to get through a boring day on the job by listening to music that makes it feel more exciting?
If you’re just looking to sample a few songs, queue up “Mexican Wine,” or “Hackensack,” or “Hey Julie,” or “Valley Winter Song.” And especially check out “All Kinds of Time,” a song Schlesinger wrote the first draft of that is probably my favorite Fountains of Wayne song. It's about a young quarterback under pressure, who feels time stretch out as he looks for somebody to throw the football to. Soon, it’s as if that one play encompasses everything he might become and every other moment he might experience in his life.
The chorus feels particularly poignant right now, in the wake of Schlesinger’s passing. Over a cascade of guitar, Collingwood sings, “He’s got all kinds of time,” over and over. At their best, Fountains of Wayne made those moments we might feel trapped in a little more pleasant to live through, no matter how unfortunately brief they might turn out to be.
One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.