Given the much-appreciated feedback on my pair of podcasts with Steve Lillywhite, who famously produced Dave Matthews Band's three biggest and best records, I had an impulse to follow up with a commentary on the band's ninth LP, Come Tomorrow, which was released June 8.
Dave Matthews says he no longer gives a fuck. This is, in part, a lie. As you can see in that linked video, Matthews speaks to turning 50 last year, and at that point, crossing the Rubicon when it came to, well, not giving a fuck.
But in terms of catering to the wants and wishes of his long-lasting, ardent fans, Matthews mostly hasn't given a fuck in ages. He is all too aware of the devoted-if-sometimes-disenchanted following he's developed in the past 20-25 years. In some ways, he seems needlessly self-imprisoned by what music he writes/plays, and who he should be doing that for.
Matthews has been battling this for more than half his career, dating back to the decision to punt on the widely lauded (but unfinished and never intended for public consumption) Lillywhite Sessions in favor of the hastily assembled Everyday, which features some of the best and worst pop songwriting he's ever done.
While DMB is — somewhat shockingly, but also deservingly — in the midst of a retrospective reevaluation from some mainstream outlets, all the while there's been a considerable faction that's stuck by the band's creative legitimacy and Matthews' inventive songwriting, which dates back to the fruitful beginnings of his career. These hardcores have done so in spite of variable returns on albums and diminishing rewards on setlists via deep cuts that showcase the group at its most vital and enviable.
Matthews' songwriting, while still occasionally offering up some huge wins ("Lying in the Hands of God," "Squirm," "Why I Am," "Broken Things" and "Snow Outside" are all A-level material from the band's two prior records), has fluctuated with much more volatility over much of the past 17 years. (This is reasonable.)
The band has a treasure chest of songs yet to get album treatment. Some of those songs have been played live. Many more are locked in the DMB vault; only a privileged few know how many, or how good, or how finished, those tunes are. Come Tomorrow is the public's first peek at what's under the lid. The LP arrives as a 12-years-in-the-making mélange of a record. The 14-track, near-55-minute album is a collection of work that spans multiple studio sessions that date back as far as 2006 to as recently as 2017 (or potentially even into 2018).
It's the most curious DMB album yet because there's not a violin solo to be found (an uncomfortable necessity, and I'll get to that in a minute) and only one brief, eight-bar standalone moment for saxophone. That comes courtesy of Jeff Coffin on "Black and Blue Bird," an airy, constellation-name-dropping number about cosmic humility that got the red-pen treatment in the studio.
In his revealing interview with Vulture from May, Matthews alludes to previous albums that wound up standing short of his vision. Matthews faults himself in this, citing creative suggestions made by others (seemingly outside the band) and instead of holding firm to what he wanted, he played nice and abstained from putting his foot down. That isn't the case on Come Tomorrow, which is clearly the most self-indulgent album Matthews has ever made. It's a DMB record that includes three songs without the band, including one song that features Matthews playing all the instruments.
The result is "That Girl Is You," a demo-ish experimental track with a high-wire vocal take that, frankly, has no business on a DMB album.
Yet for all of Matthews' supposed newfound conviction in the studio and regarding album decisions, this record finds four cooks in its kitchen — three more than any other DMB album previously. Rob Cavallo, Mark Batson, John Alagia and Rob Evans produced this record. The album benefits from the multi-angled attack at points, but also loses its station because of differing engineering techniques and sonic decisions that got made by different producers in different studios at different stages of the band's career.
The record is a mishmash. "Can’t Stop" has no link with "Here On Out" which has nothing in common with "That Girl Is You" which is a world away from "When I'm Weary" which is five genres removed from "bkdkdkdd," which has nothing to do with anything. The tempting "bkdkdkdd" snippet is BTCS-like: it shows up like an intriguing but uninvited guest and then quickly slips out the door.
And while the songwriting here is arguably the best in totality from Matthews since 2003's Some Devil (fitting, since that is his only solo LP, and CT feels closer to that record than any DMB album), Come Tomorrow is hampered by a few mismatched song inclusions and some head-scratching production decisions. Among them:
- "Samurai Cop (Oh Joy Begin)" boasts a sterling vocal from Matthews, but it has a couple of minor guitar flubs that come off as a lazy studio oversight instead of an authentic/sincere take.
- "Here On Out" is a sweet song with a bed of strings supporting it, but it's not a fit on the album. The Paul Simon-inspired "Bismarck," which was tossed into the vault, surely would have been a better pick.
- The vocal cut on "That Girl Is You"— done on its first and only take — is so peculiar it practically commands respect for its audacity. Still, its inclusion on the album, and as the fourth track, stymies momentum on the heels of "Here On Out."
- "The Idea of You" is the album's sixth track, yet starts with a live recording of the band playing the song before clipping into the studio cut. A weird decision, and if this is how it was going to be, then it would have fit much better as the album opener.
- "Black and Blue Bird" ends suddenly, accompanied by the sound of distant police sirens, an odd production choice that would have made more sense — given the song's lyrics and the album's quirks — at the end of "Funny the Way It Is" off 2009's Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King.
- It's never a good sign when an album's title track is its weakest song, but that is the case on this record. "Come Tomorrow" is a raspy, resigned rallying cry from one generation to the next. Most shockingly, the song seems to be feedback to the current teenage generation's amplification of pro-gun control legislation, yet it also includes the crass line "bang, bang, you're dead" to start its second verse.
There is a potential reason for the record's jumbled tracklist and overall lack of traditional DMB fingerprints when it comes to the band's sound: the allegations against Boyd Tinsley. The former DMB violinist has been accused by of sexually harassing and abusing a prior member of the band Crystal Garden, which Tinsley helped assemble, played in and managed as a side project while with DMB. On Feb . 2, 2018, after DMB's tour (and impending album) had been announced, Tinsley tweeted that he would be taking a hiatus from touring with DMB to focus on his health and family.
More than three months later, Consequence of Sound broke the story on Tinsley's alleged sexual misconduct. Because of that story we now know that less than 24 hours before Tinsley announced his hiatus, his accuser's lawyer issued Tinsley with a demand letter. One action begat the next. Tinsley has denied the allegations. On May 17, and in conjunction with CoS's story, Tinsley's accuser, James Frost-Winn, officially filed a suit in Washington State "alleging that Tinsley created a 'hostile work environment' where compliance with sex-based demands was tied to the band’s success. The suit seeks $9 million in damages," according to Consequence of Sound's story.
The band quietly dismissed Tinsley in an official/public capacity within 12 hours of the story posting. This came via its PR reps, and only in response to inquiring media outlets who sought comment after CoS published its piece. The band's official statement claimed no knowledge of the accusations against Tinsley prior to the CoS story being published. Tinsley's biography no longer appears on the band's website, and he has not been mentioned, referenced or seen in any album promotion for Come Tomorrow ... with one exception.
Matthews openly discussed Tinsley in his interview with Vulture ran on May 14, which came three days before the CoS story. Here's what he said about Tinsley in that piece:
To get back to the subject of the band: Things had to change after LeRoi passed. Now things have to change again because Boyd’s not around. How difficult is that shift going to be?
I have a deep love for Boyd, and he has to deal with his stuff. In many ways I’m sure it would’ve been a lot easier for him to just say, “I’m good. Let’s go play.” But you can’t just throw yourself away, your wellness away, because you play violin in a band. It doesn’t make any sense to do that.
I follow what you’re saying about why Boyd isn’t around, but how anxious are you about how his absence will affect the music?
I’m used to turning to my right and seeing him going bananas — some days doing it better than other days. You know there’s that idea of genius as something that, like, comes into a room through the window and into a person rather than lives in the person all the time? Sometimes I’d hear Boyd and I’d be like, Holy shit, you are good. Other times it’d be like, Clearly today you left the window closed. But that’s beside the point. We’re all like that. I have terrible nights. The answer is that I don’t know how it’s going to be without him there.
And are there plans for him to come back?
I can’t say, “I can’t wait till he comes back,” because I don’t know what’s going to happen. But right now being away is better for him. Nobody is happy about this situation. Except that we’re happy he can figure some stuff out. I hope he does. But I’m going to miss having that whirling-dervish Adonis-Muppet over there on my right. I know the audience is, too. But we can’t serve that desire.
In writing about/reviewing/grading this album, context with the Tinsley case is significant. And even within that context, we're still lacking answers to important questions surrounding the timeline of this album's finalization. If the band's hand was forced because of the news regarding Tinsley, it makes sense to see the album as is, with a tracklist that isn't quite cohesive because some violin-inclusive songs were left off or updated in the 11th hour to scrub him from certain recordings. (If anything, the album overcomes this to impressive ends.)
The big unknown: If Consequence of Sound's story doesn't get published, is Come Tomorrow a different album than the version that is out now? Is Tinsley on the record for more than just one song? (His only appearance comes buried in the mix on "Idea of You," which also features the late LeRoi Moore, and so it is likely the be the final track on a DMB album that features the five original members.)
It remains to be seen if we'll get answers to these questions. The Tinsley news didn't break until mid-May. By that point, the album surely should have been finished. Are we to believe DMB was going to release a record with so little violin on it? Even with Tinsley's reduced role in the past 8-10 years, that seems a stretch.
No matter the mystery (why certain songs were kept off) or controversy (Tinsley) with this album, and regardless of the six-year gap between releases and the ever-changing economy of the record-buying public, DMB is still one of the most reliable sellers in mainstream music. Come Tomorrow is set to debut at No. 1, marking the seventh straight time that's happened with a DMB album.
With violin scarce and horns pushed to the margins, DMB is missing its signature sound. That doesn't stop Come Tomorrow from being a good LP, though. Even Carter Beauford, who does get a few spots to show off his ridiculous drumming ability, is more restrained on this set than any except the all-time blunder that is 2005's Stand Up, an album universally regarded as far and away DMB's worst. Batson produced that record, but you'd hardly know it based off the Come Tomorrow tracks he was in charge of. Two months ago, if you pulled out "Come On Come On," told DMB fans it was a shelved album cut from the past and asked them to guess the producer, Steve Lillywhite would instantly spring to mind. But no, this is Batson's work, and it fortifies the record. There is some reputation repair here for the most maligned character in DMB history.
The highest peaks on this LP come on the three-song run from "Idea of You" (also Batson-produced) to "Virginia in the Rain" to "Again and Again." From a production-plus-songwriting standpoint, the band hasn't had a triple-track run that strong on an album since 1998's Before These Crowded Streets. The latter two tracks were produced by Cavallo and outclass every single song he did on 2009's Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King.
"Virginia in the Rain" has a case as one of the 15 best studio cuts of the band's career, and "Again and Again" isn't too far behind it. The ironic but compelling part: Matthews doesn't play guitar on either of them.
"Virginia in the Rain" is the longest song on the record, bringing credence once again to the notion that this band's studio strengths are best served when they're allowed to stretch out the sketch. Some Radiohead vibes on this one. The chorus doesn’t uplift the song so much as it settles it. Play this on headphones on a warm summer night and you'll feel the fireflies floating behind your head.
Tim Reynolds is wonderfully extra extraterrestrial on "Virginia," but it's Stefan Lessard who comes through biggest. Lessard, whose bass playing has always been underrated, has never been so vital on a record as he is here. It's nice to hear him expand, pinch and curve a lot of these songs. This album is Matthews' creative statement, but Lessard's performance is the most valuable on the LP. (Digression: Moore gets that distinction on Under the Table and Dreaming and Stand Up; Beauford wins Crash and Streets; Matthews takes the title on Everyday, Busted Stuff and Away From the World; Reynolds on GrooGrux.)
If there is an unforeseen/nostalgic alt-rock revival set to arrive in the next half-decade, let the record reflect that DMB got into the water early. "She" is the fifth track on the album and the punch in the arm the record needs after the loopy "That Girl is You." It sounds like a Pearl Jam knockoff, yet it works because of the brawny chorus that clicks naturally in and out of the verse. This record overall is elevated, if not saved, by its abundance of good-to-great choruses: "Samurai Cop," "Idea of You," "She," "Virginia in the Rain," "Again and Again," "Come On Come On" and "Do You Remember" all bring the hooks. In many cases, those songs are driven by Matthews' riffs, and the melodies on most of them are self-assured. Much of DMB’s best work starts with these foundations. On Come Tomorrow, they're conspicuously missing solo or play-under accompaniment.
You really wonder what kind of magic Moore could have dropped on some of these tunes, particularly "Do You Remember."
Had the band opted to give Coffin and trumpeter Rashawn Ross a little more space to shine, and slightly extended the endings on "Again and Again," "Black and Blue Bird" and "Come On Come On," the record would've been better for it. (Because of the musicianship in this group, the shorter-is-better approach usually doesn't benefit their work in the studio.) Even Reynolds, who dating back to Crash is a consistently great studio performer, feels tucked under the sheets: He only appears on seven tracks, but is deployed best on "Cop," "Virginia," and slickly dodges in step with Lessard on "Again and Again."
It's because of the lack of soloing and bridges and outros that the album moves along with solid pace; the record feels like the second-fastest listen in DMB's catalogue, only behind 2001's Everyday. Sure, "Can’t Stop" is a reworked 2006 tune that is a carnival of unnecessary (lyrically, it's among Matthews' worst), but the run from "She" up through "Do You Remember" (only Dave Matthews could write a song like this and only Carter Beauford could write the perfect drum backbeat to stitch it together) is a dynamic pan across eight tracks and 32-plus minutes that ensures the album will at worst be placed alongside (if not eventually a nudge above?) GrooGrux and 2012's Away From the World in the pantheon of DMB records.
Twenty-seven years into a Hall of Fame career, that's a win.