With the exception of Live at Red Rocks, 1998’s near-perfect Before These Crowded Streets is the Dave Matthews Band’s best album to date, incorporating the band’s onstage vim and verve with Middle Eastern textures and diverse yet focused concepts. With last year’s Everyday, however, Matthews and his band sunk into the mediocrity of radio-ready pop/rock. The album, pieced together by Matthews and producer Glen Ballard, was essentially a Dave Matthews solo record, with the rest of the band rendered veritable session musicians. The now-infamous recordings that were left in its wake (produced by longtime collaborator and studio veteran Steve Lillywhite and aptly dubbed The Lillywhite Sessions) were leaked wide on the Internet and became somewhat of a pop-culture phenomenon.
In a move that is both shrewd and curious, Matthews decided to go back into the studio to fix what, quite frankly, wasn’t busted. Nine tracks from The Lillywhite Sessions have been joined with two new tracks, the bright “You Never Know,” which features the band’s signature off-kilter time-signatures, and the album’s first single, “Where Are You Going,” to form Busted Stuff. Reminiscent of the quintet’s biggest hit, “Crash Into Me,” “Where Are You Going” is home to an instantly classic and familiar hook: “I am no superman/I have no answers for you/I am no hero, that’s for sure.” Sadly, the catchiest tunes from The Lillywhite Sessions, “Sweet Up and Down” and “LTR,” a song which fully captured the band’s onstage solidarity, are missing here. In addition, arrangements of the other Lillywhite tunes have been pared down, a few verses have been switched around (“Big Eyed Fish”) and Matthews’s performances are notably less playful (“Busted Stuff”).
Most of the album stretches Matthews thematically and vocally far beyond anything on Everyday. While that album pitch-perfectly matched the banality of U2’s much-celebrated All That You Can’t Leave Behind, “Grey Street” evokes the ardent U2 of yesteryear. Busted Stuff is relatively demure yet its themes are dark and its parables profound (a bartender is God, a glass brimming with wine symbolizes an abundant life). Matthews, as always, is both tender (“Grace Is Gone”) and dark (though the striking lyric “Oh look, I’m buried like a cancer eating away inside of me” will forever be castaway on the original version of “Captain”). While Busted Stuff is undeniably a step back from the band’s previous work, it all looms high above the everyday fluff of Everyday.