No one can out-Dave-Matthews Dave Matthews. It is heresy to attempt to replicate that mewing South African voice or clone the special magic of his instrumental mumbo-jumbo. And after 2009’s epic Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux, it was reasonable to suspect that maybe not even Dave Matthews could outdo Dave Matthews. On his masterful new record Away from the World, however, Matthews has revealed his strengths as an intimate songwriter, and the band which adds that relentless funky chaos to all his music has lost none of its luster.
Away from the World is a rambling package best explained by a line from “Broken Things”, the raucous and stirring opening track: “You can’t always know what’s coming / You can’t always trust a twist of fate.” Indeed, the only predictable thing about the Dave Matthews Band’s music is its unpredictability. It turns out to be equal parts gypsy-funk anthem and fireplace ballads. There is something inviting about songs like “Sweet”, with its fluid key changes and touching chorus (“You know that feeling when you’re in too deep”); Matthews clearly knows when to pile on the saxophones and percussion and when to pull it back. “Sweet” and the tiny “Belly Full” are two such pared-down tracks, which do not suffer from their spareness. Rather, they expose Matthew’s songwriting as heartfelt and mature, far more approachable than the majority of tracks on Big Whiskey.
Matthews’s incredible voice does not suffer when the band strikes up in full, of course, but nor does his songwriting. Songs like the standouts “Belly Belly” (as fun a song as has been released this year) and the triumphant “Gaucho” (an anthem if there ever was one) are just as full of meaningful songwriting. Such a fusion, which reveals the best chemistry Dave and the rest of the Band has ever had, culminates in the ten-minute closing saga “Drunken Soldier”, which begins with the kind of epic introduction fit for an Ennio Morricone score. Repeated throughout the song is the line, “Make the most of what you’ve got / Don’t waste time being someone you’re not.” At 45 years old, Matthews is rounding life’s great curve, and does not have time to be anything other than genuine. This may be the impetus behind the album’s title, Away from the World — the album plays like the fruits of Matthews’s prolonged introspection; it sounds like a profound elegy to the craziness of love, life, and other such rascals.
There was never any doubt that the DMB was immensely talented. It’s how that talent was employed, whether it was channeled properly or wasted on half-hearted efforts, that was the question. When knockout tracks like “Rooftop” hit, one almost scolds oneself for ever doubting Dave. Away from the World is, of course, nothing other than the work of a full and complex heart. Score: 8.5/10.
Jake Bittle / A&E Editor