The most famous lyric in “Crash Into Me,” Dave Matthews Band’s breakout love song from 1996, was a mistake. After recording several takes, Matthews added a throwaway line as a joke: “Hike up your skirt a little more and show your world to me.” It made the final cut, of course, and the song would forever be read as a tale of lust rather than desire. “It’s the song of a 26-year-old or 25-year-old,” he recently told GQ. “Now I’m a 56-year-old, and that changes what you want to sing about.” These days, Matthews is more concerned with impermanence as liberation and themes that distill the long-running mindfulness of his music. On Walk Around the Moon, the band’s 10th studio album, he turns those subjects into surprisingly pretty odes, tapping into his gentler side with the wisdom and grace afforded by age.
If you’re expecting the classic attributes of Dave Matthews Band—crunchy grooves, dueling horns and violin, Matthews’ imitable, guttural singing—then Walk Around the Moon will come as a surprise. In the five years since they released the dull but optimistic Come Tomorrow, Dave Matthews Band have seen their children pack their bags for college, the George Floyd protesters strive for justice, and the world confront the precarity of health. With big change comes thankfulness for anything that’s stayed reliable; that might explain the comparatively restrained approach on Walk Around the Moon. The band forgoes its most flamboyant instrumentation and scales back to a grounded, almost meditative, core. With the bulk of the album aligning with triple-A soft-rock, the quietness that permeates these songs gives their themes of reflection a chilling air: the sobering reality of the pandemic on “Singing From the Windows,” learning to forfeit control on the trumpet-dotted “The Ocean and the Butterfly.” Seven members round out the lineup, the most at any time in their history, but the group has never sounded so reserved.
Past and present iterations of Dave Matthews Band freely intermingle on Walk Around the Moon. As always, Matthews confronts death and loss, but there’s a sense he’s learned something new about it this time around. A handful of tracks have been massaged for years on the road or pulled from the vault: “Monsters,” a wistful, bass-forward dose of nostalgia, is nearly a decade old. They’ve been playing “Break Free” live for 17 years, the late LeRoi Moore living on through his work as a composer and lyricist on the soulful track. Bootleggers’ enthusiasm aside, these two songs are highlights for the band as storytellers; revisiting your former self with acceptance, and potentially forgiveness, is hard, especially if you’re prone to embarrassing one-liners.
At 40 minutes, Walk Around the Moon is a brisk reverie—and their shortest album ever. That cutoff means their zesty solos are shorter and moments of all-in instrumentation are subtler. When they do go for it, Dave Matthews Band might be having too much fun. Sandwiched between two heart-on-sleeve acoustic numbers, “After Everything” goes from alt-rock ham to neo-soul pastiche as abruptly as a jumpscare. You could hold it up beside enjoyable parodies like “The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room” or Beck’s “Debra,” if only it was actually obvious that Matthews and Arthur “Buddy” Strong’s back-and-forth groans are caricatures. After all, this is the same band that picked “I Did It” as a single and ended “Pig” with 30 seconds of scatting. Call it brainwashing or a coping method, but by the third listen, my hate subsided and I started singing along. There comes a point in every Dave Mathews Band album where you have to embrace the cheese.
On Walk Around the Moon, the band works on picturesque choruses and tight-knit, tender songs that stand on their own. Tumpets, saxophones, and Hammond organ sway like wheat stalks in the title track. “It Could Happen” is a deceptively rich pop ballad for parents about the miracle of watching your kids grow into tiny, functioning people, with sweeping violins that go straight for the tear ducts. Even the chunky, Cake-like riffs that open “The Only Thing” are concise, the driving force that opens the chorus wide for Matthews’ falsettos. Swapping the cold, clean production of their 2010s albums for a warmer, more intimate filter, Walk Around the Moon sounds closer to his solo music than it does the band’s old hijinks, but a closer look shows Dave Matthews Band trying on a new, sleeker look.
To the delight of those with faded fire dancer decals on the back of their Jeeps, Matthews embraces uncoolness the way any experienced parent would. Every song whispers mature, late-era album giving a sly, all-knowing tone to his words. “Madman’s Eyes,” a spin on Arabic pop-metal with Matthews taking up sitar and Jeff Coffin playing a nasally melody on tárogató, offers an apolitical denunciation of mass shootings and our glossy-eyed acceptance of them. “I’m afraid, can’t lie,” yells Matthews, like he needs confirmation that he’s not the only one feeling helpless. During “The Only Thing,” he breaks down the factors that cause us to idealize anonymity: your first experience of public humiliation, the regret of paralyzing indecision, the realization that time is slipping away. It helps that Matthews sings like the grim reaper’s hourglass is permanently in view, each falling grain of sand creating space for forgiveness. “If I wasn’t there, I wouldn’t believe it,” he later sings in “It Could Happen,” his voice tinged with disbelief and gratitude. Like the rest of Walk Around the Moon, it sounds like Matthews is reflecting on how he got to this point in life, amazed that 30 years later he still gets to do this with his friends.
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