The long-running jam band’s ninth album centers on hard-earned optimism but smooths out much of what makes Dave Matthews’ music engaging.
Since forming in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the early ’90s, Dave Matthews and his band have excelled at making cargo-shorts party music, blending acoustic folk, jazz fusion, bluegrass, and funk. Songs like “Ants Marching” and “Crash Into Me” were streamlined and direct enough to become alternative rock radio staples and get airtime on MTV, but it was the band’s improvisation-heavy live shows—where songs routinely stretched into double-digit runtimes—that earned a devoted jam following. DMB songs weren’t as intricate as those of Phish, or as overtly southern as Widespread Panic, but they were sprawling and accessible. In a post-Dead world following the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, people were eager for exploratory music with distinct pop leanings, and Dave fit the bill.
More than 25 years later, DMB still draws substantial crowds, and stands as one of the most service-driven bands in rock. Along the way, Matthews’ songs have become cultural shorthand for the rejection of irony and cynicism. On shows like “Futurama,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Community,” and “The Office,” the band is referenced lovingly via sly inside jokes. Greta Gerwig’s 2017 coming of age comedy Lady Bird goes even further, praising “Crash Into Me” in a pivotal scene, if not prompting a critical reevaluation of the band’s music—which was always more complex and compelling than the rock press gave it credit for—then at least suggesting the band earned points for having a lot of heart.
Of course, darker undercurrents also run through the DMB catalog. His father, John Matthews, died when he was only ten, and his sister Anne was murdered by her husband shortly before the release of the band’s major-label debut Under the Table and Dreaming in 1994. In 2008, saxophonist LeRoi Moore died following complications from an ATV accident. These deaths make their way into his songs. For all the sunny melodies, few pop songwriters sing as frequently and with as much clarity about death than Matthews.
The best Dave Matthews Band songs live in this tension, balancing loose-limbed jams with heavy concerns: from environmentalism to colonialism, apartheid to capitalism not making space for human dignity. “I’ll write a funky song about lust and sex and it makes you want to dance,” Matthews told Vulture’s David Marchese in May. “I feel like that’s okay. But I also have to write songs about the dilemmas of being alive.”
Come Tomorrow aims to split the difference down the middle. DMB has been playing most of these songs for years, and a few—“Can't Stop” and “Idea of You”—have been featured in setlists for more than a decade. Though it features performances from all members of the classic lineup, including the late Moore and violinist Boyd Tinsley, who was dismissed from the band in May following sexual misconduct allegations, it augments the core group with a wide cast of players providing strings, synthesizers, and percussion.
More doesn’t always equal more. The band’s potent musical wanderlust is muted here. Opener “Samurai Cop (Oh Joy Begin)” dully borrows runs from the U2 arena rock playbook; “That Girl Is You” finds Matthews trying out an exaggerated falsetto over overly polite roots pop stomp; on “Here On Out,” a sticky sweet ballad, Matthews is joined by Disney-esque strings and horns. Dave Matthews Band sounds best when it’s weird; the bummer on these songs is how bored the band sounds.
But even as a cadre of producers smoothes out the band’s crunchiest tendencies, glimpses of the DMB’s ambitious musicianship shine through. These outliers aren’t always successful. The metal-tinged “She” sputters, and the absurd funk interlude “Bkdkdkdd” doesn’t fit right, but they do at least indicate the band’s musical restlessness. When things do click into place, on the doe-eyed “Idea of You,” the swelling “Come On Come On” and the Rhodes-sprinkled ballad “Virginia in the Rain,” Matthews makes good in Bruce Hornsby or Sting fashion, playing intricate singer-songwriter songs with the added heft of his remarkable rhythm section, drummer Carter Beauford and bassist Stefan Lessard. The best songs here feel like they could have fit in nicely on Matthews’ lone solo album and his best work of the millennium, 2003’s Some Devil; they’re lyrically lightweight, but musically charged and gleaming.
Matthews says Come Tomorrow is an album about love of the future, hope, family, the planet, and lust. But in seeking transcendence—and opting out of explicit political themes—Matthews sometimes settles for pat answers. On “Come Tomorrow,” where he’s joined by guest vocalist Brandi Carlile, his hope for future generations comes dangerously close to sounding like “everything’ll be OK,” a curious message in a time when things clearly don’t feel that way:
All the girls and boys will sing Come tomorrow we fix everything So as long as we survive today Come tomorrow we go and find a way
Matthews doesn’t hide entirely from worry on the record. “The odds are against us,” he sings on “Do You Remember,” admitting that headlines make him “crazy” on “Black and Blue Bird” and that “there’ll be dark, dark days” on closer “When I’m Weary,” but his nursery rhyme cadence on the title track feels phoned in, like he isn’t buying what he’s selling. It’s treacly enough to make you long for the relative sharpness of his tender eco-ballad “One Sweet World.”
On the band’s first few albums, Dave built song cycles around contrast. He wrote about navigating the world, evidencing his pacifist Quaker upbringing, and offsetting those songs with worshipful odes to sex, wine, dancing, and abandon. The blend was never entirely even—chances are more fans remember Judah Friedlander sweetly hugging strangers in the “Everyday” video than have dug into the song’s roots as an ode to the assassinated anti-apartheid activist Chris Hani—but when it worked, it suggested joy and struggle in a kind of conversation. On Come Tomorrow, Matthews manages to carve out a peaceful place that’ll certainly be conducive to balmy summer nights in arenas all around the country. But by extolling vague hopes for the future, he fails to account for the tumultuous present. “There’s gotta be a way to make it work,” he sings on “Black and Blue Bird.” The best Dave songs imagine how it might, and Come Tomorrow needs more of them.
Via Jason W. @Pitchfork