The Listener: 'Before These Crowded Streets'

Before These Crowded Streets, by Dave Matthews Band. RCA. 1998.

It’s crazy I’m thinking
Just knowing that the world is round
And here I’m dancing on the ground
Am I right side up or upside down
And is this real or am I dreaming?

Much like Days of the New reminds me of autumn, Dave Matthews Band’s 1998 album Before These Crowded Streets has always reminded me of spring.

Why? I’m not really sure. Perhaps because it was released in April and the songs bring to mind the spring fever I felt when I first heard them in high school. (Sunshine, warm weather, the exhilaration of being outdoors for the first time in months; the sight of bare arms, shoulders, and legs when the girls started wearing shorts and spaghetti-string tops again…) Perhaps because the music of Dave Matthews Band always conjures images of untroubled, laid-back, young suburban hippies wearing sandals and hemp necklaces, their perhaps herbal-aided positive outlook on life reminiscent of fresh green leaves and blossoming flowers in April and May.

Whatever the reason, I don’t feel it anymore after listening to the album for the first time in years on Tuesday. The album’s disposition is much more mournful, ominous, and spooky than fun, exciting, uplifting, and sunny.

Before I continue reviewing the album, I want to say some things about Dave Matthews Band:

•First of all, I have never been a big “DMB” or jam band fan. Yes, I own two DMB albums (the other is Under the Table and Dreaming), and I dig some songs, but the genre, whatever it is, is not my favorite. I can tolerate and listen to it (for a while, at least), but I do not seek it.

•It was hard to avoid DMB in the mid- and late-nineties. For a time, DMB seemed to be The Grateful Dead for younger Gen-Xers and older Millennials. When I was in high school, DMB was the band of the cool kids, especially the stoner jocks and intellectuals I admired for their confidence, laid-back attitude, and fashion sense. I wanted to be like them — which is probably one reason I own two DMB albums. I assume I bought the albums to figure out what the fuss was all about. (I remember now that Under the Table and Dreaming was given to me by a friend who hated DMB. If he hated DMB so much, why did he have the album? Probably the same reason I bought Before These Crowded Streets.)

•Speaking of those “cool” stoner jocks and intellectuals from high school, I later started referring to them as “Dave Matthews bourgeois.” Many DMB fans did seem to be upper class and upper middle class — or at least I assumed they were because that was the stereotype — but not all of them were.

Anyway, am I bummed Before These Crowded Streets did not give me that warm, fuzzy, springtime feeling? Of course! I sat on my porch Tuesday evening, put on my headphones, and expected some good vibes, some good springtime music, the kind one plays in the background when getting together with friends to enjoy a perfect, chill weekend evening. The album offered that at times, especially with “Rapunzel” (my notes say, “enchanting sections, uplifting mélange of instruments, melodic chaos; one of those songs that would last forever in concert; on and on and on”), “Stay (Wasting Time),” and “Crush,” but the feeling wasn’t overarching, as I misremembered and expected. Instead, it invoked a mishmash of emotions from me. While listening to “Don’t Drink the Water” and “The Dreaming Tree,” I could not help thinking of the times I am camping and find myself mesmerized by the power and fury of a raging campfire late at night. “Halloween” is spooky, mournful, ominous, and sorrowful. (Why did I ever think of spring when the album has a song titled “Halloween”?) “The Last Stop” is exotic and Arabian, conjuring the mysterious, unknown, and unknowable. “The Stone” made me anxious with its frantic string instruments, though there are parts that are enchanting and lullaby-like. And the last song, “Spoon,” which features Alanis Morissette on vocals, was very hard to pin down. I tried to listen to the lyrics but they seemed to melt together into metaphorical glop.

Speaking of the vocals, they blend so well with the instrumentals that I don’t even notice them. Then again, I am one of those people who tends to overlook vocals and focus on beats and instruments. As long as I dig the music, I couldn’t care less what the lyrics are. On Before These Crowded Streets, there is so much going on in each song, so much to process, that Dave Matthews’ voice gets lost.

But even though Before These Crowded Streets did not evoke the same emotions as I thought it would — it seems more summertime than springtime — it is still decent and listenable, still an album I am glad I own.

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