Twenty years into their multi-platinum career, Dave Matthews Band
are a model of consistency if not startling creative ingenuity. Their latest album, Away From the World
, boasts the same relaxed, confident musicianship that has marked their previous records, but the melodic familiarity leads to too many pleasantly dull moments. To be sure, this is a tuneful collection with several small delights, but for anyone not already enamored by the group’s jam-rock sound, Away From the World
will feel more like wheel-spinning than a bold step forward.
Here's the Sting
Away From the World
is the first DMB record since Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King
, their 2009 album released in the wake of the death of longtime saxophonist LeRoi Moore. Big Whiskey
couldn’t help but feel laced with sadness, and while Away From the World
also exudes a melancholy spirit, the overall tone is more of wistful reflection and resignation. Even when Matthews decries the madness of war, it’s done in an almost offhand way. Away From the World
’s principal quality is its laid-back, professional vibe. With his willingness to merge different musical styles -- jazz, pop, groove -- Matthews can be seen as a new generation’s Sting, who also shied away from conventional rock to encompass all kinds of sounds. At its best, Away From the World
offers a musical adventurousness that’s buoyant and fresh. But too often, the album is frustratingly polite, turning smart, tuneful arrangements into dull sonic exercises that refuse to engage as they should.
Pleasing but Formulaic
The first single, “Mercy,” perfectly embodies all that’s right and wrong with the new album. Undoubtedly pleasing to the ear and buttressed by pretty horns, “Mercy” is a perfectly fine mid-tempo number that sports some inspirational lyrics about making the world a better place. But by this point, Matthews and his cohorts have worked this terrain so rigorously that the song feels terribly formulaic, no matter its sonic curlicues. Where once their airy sound helped differentiate themselves from the grunge and industrial groups of the ’90s, now they’re a genre unto themselves, and by the sounds of Away From the World, they’re very happy to wander around that sonic turf rather than go off exploring.
Love and Mortality
This isn’t to take away from the album’s strongest tunes. Throughout his life, Matthews has written persuasively about adult love, and Away From the World
features some new songs in that vein. “If Only” rides a jazzy beat to tell the story of separated lovers trying to give their relationship one more try. In “The Riff,” Matthews marvels how young he still feels at heart, even though he’s now firmly in middle age. The slowly building ballad examines how love evolves over time, with Matthews reminding his beloved, “You stay with me/that don’t mean we’ve gotta stay the same.” Not unlike similarly thoughtful veteran acts such as Wilco
, Matthews isn’t singing to teenagers but, rather, reflecting how his worldview has changed as he’s gotten older. But while mortality hangs heavy over the lyrics, the music’s consistent light pulse tends to smooth over those anxieties rather than add muscle and feeling.
The Same Old Same Old
Diehard DMB fans may indeed be thrilled with Away From the World
’s wide-open musical palate. Indeed, Matthews still sings with his mixture of snarl and sweetness, and his lyrics have lost none of their regular-guy philosophizing. Early on in the album’s closing track, “Drunken Soldier,” Matthews declares, “Make the most of what you’ve got/Don’t waste time being trying to be something you’re not.” There’s strength in knowing what you’re good at, and for two decades Dave Matthews Band have been a massive success cultivating their particular musical garden. Unfortunately, this year’s crop of tunes aren’t as ripe and delicious as previous seasons’.
'Away From the World' - Best Tracks:
“If Only” (Purchase/Download
“The Riff” (Purchase/Download
“Broken Things” (Purchase/Download
“Snow Outside” (Purchase/Download
Release date – September 11, 2012