The Dave Matthews Band in 2018

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 is wearier, and his knees are 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. 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 LeRoi 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 where you repeatedly ask each other “what are you doing?” and responding, “nothing, you?” in a cycle, like two lunatics, until a parent jumps on the line (1997) and demands you end your dumbass conversation.

The second, as is relevant to my Valentine’s gift, is to exchange cheap material gestures of your affection with things ranging from CD’s and candy, to whatever you can buy in that aisle of a 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.” Call me 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. As a boy, he lost his father to lung cancer, and in 1994 his older sister was killed by her husband in a murder-suicide. He writes songs steeped in hope because he’s far too familiar with how much the world wants to take it from you.

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 music needed it. They prioritized live performances over radio and studio releases to create a more loyal fan base. Their grassroots strategy to play smaller shows at bars and college parties hedged a bet that as the stage got bigger, the intimacy shared with the band 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 drunk simpletons are at the concerts of any and every popular artist, even the critically adored. Dipshits love Beyoncé too. Don’t let fans ruin what you like. Have more backbone than that. To date, the best reason for hating the Dave Matthews Band is that you just don’t like their music. I’ll tip my Solo cup to that.

Nearly three decades later, the band is still one of the top grossing and best live touring acts in the world. The sharpness of the band’s live performances is remarkable. These guys can play. But these days, the attention around the band has faded. There are less and less “new fans” coming on board, and seeing them live feels more nostalgic than anything else. And with their age, this is clearly the downslope of their fame.

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 for a Dave apologist, their last album wasn’t good (an opinion held by Matthews himself). The lyrics, once written by a man tortured by his id, have shifted to sweet, but generic altruism. 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 by 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 happens 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, this is what makes young people self-absorbed and full of shit, but the irrational journey to a revelation is where originality and romanticism thrive.

Dave is 51 years old, married with three kids, and extraordinarily wealthy. 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 playing simply for a love of 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 a humanitarian credo. I admire his giving nature. But sorry, songs about being good global citizens have always sucked. On 2009’s “Funny the Way It Is,” Dave observes 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? 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 inventive—my hunch is it won’t. But after considering how long I’ve adored this band, I echo what Dave said to Rolling Stone in 2015 — does that really matter?

Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated film, Lady Bird, is a coming-of-age story about an opinionated teenager (redundant) in her senior year of high school, set in 2002. 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 anyone who has ever been 17.

In a pivotal scene, “Crash into me” plays and is predictably loathed by the “cool guy,” before Lady Bird, who keeps a feminist punk persona — the type who would make fun of “DMB” — finds herself defending Dave’s most recognized song. She loves “Crash into me,” because it reminds her of her best friend. It doesn’t square with the identity she’s trying to establish, but she feels what she feels. “Crash into me” is her memory, and that’s sweet like candy to her adolescent soul. This song has been sweet to a lot of adolescent souls.

Gerwig, who based the film 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 or tastes, but when you revisit their music, you feel what you feel. Seeing a critically-beloved movie in 2018 use “Crash into me” reignited the band’s relevance through the aching and unbothered force of 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 the thing I discovered about music while listening to the Dave Matthews Band as a kid remains true today:

It’s about how you feel. Not much else matters. Passivity be damned, this band rules.

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