On Friday, the Dave Matthews Band will release its ninth studio album, Come Tomorrow. It’s been six years since their last studio release, the longest gap between original records in the band’s 27 years of existence. 27 years—crazy, huh?
In a 2015 Rolling Stone interview, Dave Matthews seemed ambivalent about making another album. He questioned if it mattered anymore. It sounded like he had reframed what this band means to him at this point in his life. With their role in the current culture reduced to passivity, it seems like a time for fans to reframe what the Dave Matthews Band is to them too.
His hairline is higher, his voice, wearier, and his knees, less receptive to the Pinocchio-styled dancing he’s known to do on stage, but Matthews’ songs of infectious hope that created a legion of fans and an army of critics still retain a vibrancy that permeates summer. Regardless of what they mean now, the imprint of the Dave Matthews Band in the 90’s and early 2000’s cannot be oversold. This band was important. This band was intriguing. This band ruled.
Matthews met his bandmates working as a bartender in Charlottesville, Virginia. The six-piece ensemble turned his demo tape—containing lyrics of love, lust, and goodwill—into a unique jazz and bluegrass sound that caught on in the post-grunge era. The Dave Matthews Band (shorthand: “Dave,” referring to the band as a whole or just its front man) has enjoyed a level of success very few artists reach, and fewer sustain.
I was nine years old when I stole found my sister’s copy of Under the Table and Dreaming. The album opens with “The Best of What’s Around.” The drums pop, the jangly acoustics begin, and Moore’s saxophone steals the show. The song bounces like a sunbaked beach ball before ending in a series of cheerful “hey-la’s.” It was a bunch of noise that came together to promote a gleefully simple message. I was hooked.
The Crash album would catapult them to superstardom. It was unabashed pop music with sharp production and sharper lyrics. The biggest song on the album is “Crash into me.” It had a schmaltzy, childlike affirmation of love that stays with you, as feelings of love will always reduce grown men into petrified boys. I was 11-years-old when I first heard this. I knew nothing of the vulnerable affection that Dave was baring, but the song made me feel it anyway. This is music’s primary superpower. You feel a song before you ever understand it.
Small anecdote: I gave Crash to my sixth-grade girlfriend as a Valentine’s Day gift, upholding one of the only two obligations in a grade school relationship:
The first is to have 90-minute phone calls of nothingness. This will include 20 minutes of repeatedly asking each other “what are you doing?” and responding, “nothing, you?” in a cycle, like two lunatics. A parent will eventually jump on the line (1997) and demand you go to bed, to which one of you will say, “was that, like, your mom/dad?” like a dumbass.
Secondly, as is relevant to my Valentine’s gift, you will exchange cheap material gestures ranging from CD’s and candy, to whatever you can buy in that aisle in Walgreens that sells box fans and pool shoes year-round.
I gave her the album with a card that said “Lauren, this CD is cool. My sister, who is in high school, said so too. I will see you at recess and not talk to you.” I was a regular Don Juan.
The Dave Matthews Band was indispensable to my music catalog for nearly 20 years. Despite my brief enthrallment with pop punk, emo, and faux-metal, to which I owe no apologies, Dave always stuck. Their songs are woven into every major experience of my youth. People forget a lot about their formative years. They never forget the albums they listened to during them.
A good Dave song is the best kind of saccharine. Their songs refuse to end in sadness, as dictated by their songwriter. Matthews grew up around the injustices of South African apartheid. At ten years old, he lost his father to lung cancer, and in 1994 his older sister was shot dead by her husband in a murder-suicide. His songs contain a perpetual optimism because he’s deeply familiar with how hard the world makes it to hold on to.
The band’s first proper album, Under the Table and Dreaming, was released six months after rock-icon Kurt Cobain killed himself in a lifelong battle with depression. The Dave Matthews Band’s exuberant sound came at a time that needed it. They initially prized live performances over radio and studio releases to create a more loyal fan base. Their grassroots strategy to play smaller shows at bars, clubs and college parties hedged a bet that as the stage got bigger, the intimacy would remain. They bet right.
Since their inception, they’ve enjoyed successive waves of teenagers and young adults exalting their care-free intoxication with the anthemic “Tripping Billies,” or drowning their romantic agony in the bluesy “Crush.” And in Carter Beauford’s billion-piece drum kit, a night is made when he simply and repeatedly hits that snare to the beginning of “Ants Marching.”
The band’s swelling popularity would also come with considerable dissention and parody. They have always been critically maligned, but Dave has also been a vessel for jokes aimed at Solo cup-toting frat boys and preppies. These barbs support a notion that their fan base is a mile wide and an inch deep. This isn’t unfair, but it does ignore that drunk simpletons are at every concert of a popular artist, the critically adored included (basic people love Beyoncé too). That said, a lot of people just don’t like the Dave Matthews Band’s music. No objection, Your Honor.
Nearly three decades later, the band is still one of the top grossing and best live touring acts around. Even if you don’t care for them, the strength of the band’s live performances is irrefutable. These guys can play. But these days, seeing them live reminds us of their scope more than it fortifies it. The attention around the band, both positive and negative, has faded. Coupled with their age, this is the downslope of their narrative arc.
Admittedly, it’s been a long time since I’ve been compelled to listen to their records. The pace and reception of their new music has created a cultural indifference. And frankly, even to this Dave apologist, their last album wasn’t good (an opinion held by Matthews himself). The lyrics, written by a man whose id always ached for more than his ego, have migrated to more of his sweet, but generic espousals of global harmony. It’s not that Matthews is less soulful, but it’s fair to say that his imagination doesn’t run as wild as it used to—something every successful artist deals with.
The ebbs and flows of a musician’s inventiveness has always fascinated me, to which I have no shortage of unqualified theories. Their creativity is often at its best when they’re younger because, well, drugs. But more significantly, so much of what their imagination longs for has yet to be humbled in reality. The creative process is taking an idea that inspires an action and results in an experience. Getting from one end to the other is where the great poetry is because the sensation of fulfilling a desire is happening in real time. It’s the drug running through the veins. This feeling is far more intense in the moment than it is in reflection. Sure, some of this is what makes younger people self-absorbed and full of shit, but this irrational journey to a revelation provides more originality and romanticism than plain wisdom.
Dave is 51 years old, married with three kids, and living in extraordinary wealth. His inspiration is his reality. The band’s journey has reached that point of reflection. There’s an expectation for them to be what they are. They keep going simply for a love of the music and each other. The money’s not bad either.
Dave has admitted his creativity exists mostly in other places now—newer places. He cares less about himself and more about the world he lives in. Being a father does that. Much of the last three albums have wandered from the fun wordplay of his youthful aspirations, to his more altruistic approach. I admire his giving nature. But all that being said, songs of humanitarianism are seldom good. On 2009’s “Funny the Way It Is,” Dave was observing that even on beautiful days, bad things happen. We know that, Dave.
So, what does the road ahead look like for a band past its prime? I guess after 27 years of making fun-loving music, maybe what’s behind them is all fans should care about. I don’t know if this new album is going to be regenerative—my hunch is no. But after considering how long I’ve adored this band, I take what Dave said to Rolling Stonein 2015 and wonder the same thing. Does it really matter?
Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated film, Lady Bird, is a coming-of-age story, set in 2002, about an opinionated teenager (redundant) in her senior year of high school. The titular character, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, rebels against the shackles of adolescence because they keep her from living the life of sophistication and culture she so clearly deserves. This, of course, sounds like every Millennial who has ever been 17.
In a pivotal scene, “Crash into me” plays and is predictably loathed by one character, before Lady Bird, who embodies a feminist punk persona, finds herself defending Dave’s most recognized song. She loves “Crash into me,” simply because it reminds her of her best friend. It doesn’t square with her disposition, but she feels what she feels.
Gerwig, who wrote and directed the film based on her own teenage experiences, wanted the song in the movie so much that she personally penned a letter to Matthews asking to use it. The band was an important part of her youth, just as it was to mine, and millions of others. Dave may no longer square with your current disposition, but when you revisit their music, you feel what you feel. Seeing a critically-acclaimed and beloved movie in 2018 use “Crash into me” for that reason didn’t suddenly reignite the band’s relevance, it evoked nostalgia. This song is overrated. This song is corny. This song rules.
On Friday, we’ll get a new album from an old band. Come Tomorrow may not help you decide if listening to them is a carousel still worth riding, or a time machine taking you to your past, but that thing I discovered listening to the Dave Matthews Band when I was a kid remains true today:
First, it’s about how you feel. Then, not much else matters. Passivity be damned, this band rules.